Masked students walk to class at Forsyth Central High School in this 2020 file photo. The CDC wants to see students mask up once more this fall, regardless of vaccination status, as the delta variant of COVID-19 spreads. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder
WASHINGTON — Federal health officials on Tuesday urged Americans in areas of the country with the highest surges in COVID-19 infections to once again wear masks when they are in public, indoor settings — even if they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
The updated recommendations marked a sharp shift from the agency’s guidance in May that Americans fully vaccinated against COVID-19 do not need to wear a mask in most situations, indoors and outdoors.
The recommendations apply to areas with “high” or “substantial” transmission rates, and therefore nearly all Georgians — all but 11 of Georgia’s 159 counties have high or substantial transmission of COVID-19, according to the CDC.
In the past two weeks, 16,345 new cases were reported to the Georgia Department of Public Health, up from 5,860 during the two weeks before that.
“Unfortunately, many of the trends are moving in the wrong direction,” said Georgia State University public health professor Dr. Harry J. Heiman.” On top of national trends with this new delta variant, many of us are particularly concerned about states like Georgia with very low vaccination rates overall.”
Only about 40% of Georgians are fully vaccinated, according to the state health department, while the Mayo Clinic reports 49.4% of Americans are.
Mask up for class
The updates also included changes for schools, with federal health officials now urging everyone in K-12 schools to wear a mask indoors. That includes teachers, staff, students and visitors, regardless of vaccination status and the level of community transmission.
As schoolchildren across the state prepare to resume classes as early as next week, some districts are making last-minute changes to mask policies.
The Savannah-Chatham County School District initially said it planned to keep its mask-optional policy despite Savannah Mayor Van Johnson reinstatement of his city’s mask mandate Monday after he let it expire in May. But Superintendent M. Ann Levett changed course at a Tuesday press conference where some of the materials were printed with old information before the sudden change.
“When we started this journey, when we printed that leaflet, masks were optional,” she said. “Given the escalating COVID case rates, masks are now required for all staff, students and visitors in all SCCPSS facilities until further notice. Written notice will be provided to all staff today, and this change in guidance to families will be shared widely in the coming days.”
Chatham County is one of more than 30 Georgia counties where cases are high and rising among young people between five and 17 years old, according to state health department data.
Clarke County Schools announced a change to require masks Monday with just over a week to go before classes start, now requiring all students, employees and visitors to wear face masks. The Athens-area district previously only required masks for students in pre-K through middle school.
Heiman said he’d like to see more districts follow suit, as well as the University System of Georgia.
“I teach at Georgia State University, and at this moment in time none of the state universities have a vaccination mandate, nor do they have a mask mandate. From where I’m sitting, that’s irresponsible,” he said. “We know that mandates are a critically effective public health tool, which is why every student that goes to a K-12 school or a university has to show proof of vaccination for a number of diseases, which are today, much rarer, and much lower risk than COVID.”
“I think we need the University System of Georgia to institute a vaccine mandate across the system. We need to have school systems across the country, K-12, reinstitute mask mandates for the time being, those are critical public health tools that need to be used,” he said.
Levett said complying with mask rules will enable teachers to help students learn and grow without quarantines or digital days.
“To ensure that we can keep our commitment to implementing a full return to five days in-person instruction, we ask for full cooperation with the requirement for masks and all other public safety guidance,” she said.
‘This was not a decision that was taken lightly’
The update in CDC guidance was prompted by new data indicating that although breakthrough infections among the vaccinated are rare, those individuals still may be contagious and able to spread the disease to others, said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and wearing a mask indoors in areas with elevated transmission of the virus could help to reduce further outbreaks of the highly contagious delta variant.
Georgia and 38 states have infection rates that have reached “substantial” or “high” levels of transmission, according to a data tracker on the CDC website.
“This was not a decision that was taken lightly,” Walensky said. She added that other public health and medical experts agreed with the CDC that the new information on the potential for vaccinated people to have contagious infections required the agency to take action.
President Joe Biden described the agency’s revision on recommended mask use as “another step on our journey to defeating this virus.”
“I hope all Americans who live in the areas covered by the CDC guidance will follow it,” Biden said. “I certainly will when I travel to these areas.”
The mask-use changes may not be the only changes coming as the White House attempts to respond to the spiking infections. Biden also said Tuesday that a vaccination requirement for all federal employees is under consideration.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs already has required its frontline health care workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
But the new recommendations on masks are expected to be met with resistance.
Areas of the country with the highest spikes in COVID-19 infections tend to be those with the lowest vaccination rates and places that were the fastest to end mask mandates for public settings.
Some have taken legal steps to prevent future mask mandates. At least nine states — Arkansas, Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and Vermont — have enacted legislation that prohibits districts from requiring masks in schools, according to a CNN analysis, though Gov. Brian Kemp’s measure lacks any legal teeth.
It was not immediately clear how Georgia cities and counties will react to the guidance, or how the state will respond — last time around, Kemp tussled with local officials who wanted to go beyond the state safety measures, but ultimately backed off.
Kemp has largely resisted public health mandates of any kind, arguing that the state’s role should be to educate Georgians but the decision to mask or be vaccinated should be left to individuals.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, blasted the updated guidance in a statement Tuesday, describing it as “not grounded in reality or common sense.” Iowa’s level of community transmission is rated as “substantial” in the latest CDC map.
“I’m concerned that this guidance will be used as a vehicle to mandate masks in states and schools across the country, something I do not support,” Reynolds said, adding that the vaccine “remains our strongest tool to combat COVID-19” and that she will continue to urge vaccinations.
Walensky sidestepped a question during Tuesday’s news briefing about the level of compliance that the CDC expects with the new recommendations, saying only that the way to drive down rising community transmission rates is to wear masks and to increase vaccination rates.
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