While the previous CDC recommendations lifting mask mandates for vaccinated Americans were widely criticized for creating public confusion since it’s impossible to tell whether an unmasked American inside a public place is vaccinated or is simply defying masking orders, the impetus for changing mask recommendations now is the widespread surge of the delta variant now causing hospital beds to fill again. Nearly all hospitalized COVID-19 patients are among the unvaccinated—but that doesn’t mean vaccinated Americans can’t get the virus. They’re just far less likely to do so.
And even though vaccinated Americans are only very rarely getting sick enough to require hospitalization, health officials remain concerned that vaccinated Americans may still be able to spread the delta variant even if they themselves have no symptoms of infection.
The advice to resume wearing masks even if you have received a COVID-19 vaccine is an effort to quickly slow the new surge before it causes the collapse of regional health care systems. Vaccinated or not, wearing a mask in public provides a second line of defense that will further reduce the possibility of becoming infected or spreading that infection. It’s especially important to keep yourself out of harm’s way as hospitals fill: Do not make them take care of you. They may not have a bed for you.
States that don’t suck will likely incorporate these new recommendations into their own pandemic emergency rules in the coming days, meaning you’re likely to see local mask restrictions tighten to match these guidelines. The surge may soon result in a change in federal vaccination requirements as well: President Joe Biden is now saying that a vaccination mandate for federal employees is “under consideration.”
The nation could likely have avoided the delta surge and new mask requirements had Americans gotten vaccinated in sufficient numbers to stop community spread; due mostly to widespread Republican condemnation of pandemic safety measures, that did not happen. Our most urgent task is to stop community spread now, before new mutations of the virus develop that may be able to evade current vaccines and before hospital systems in low-vaccination areas are forced to again resort to parking lot tents to house pandemic patients and the bodies of pandemic patients.
Keep wearing masks in public until the pandemic danger has fully passed. It’s easy, and it may very well save the life of someone you didn’t even know was counting on you. There’s not a single good reason not to.