Many people across the United States celebrated when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced in May that those who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 no longer need to wear masks indoors. Now the World Health Organization has something different to say on the topic.
Officials from the WHO have recently said that people — including those who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 — should continue to wear masks indoors. "Vaccine alone won't stop community transmission," Dr. Mariangela Simao, the WHO’s assistant director-general for access to medicines and health products, said during a press briefing last week. “People need to continue to use masks consistently, be in ventilated spaces," practice hand hygiene and physical distancing and avoid crowds, she added.
The rise of the Delta variant and other forms of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, "makes it even more urgent that we use all the tools at our disposal," Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the WHO, said at a press briefing on Friday, according to the New York Times.
The Delta variant is now responsible for one in every five new COVID-19 infections in the U.S., up from about one in every 10 the week before.
The WHO recommends that masks be worn in crowded settings, where social distancing isn’t possible and where ventilation is poor. The WHO does not address vaccination status in its masking guidance.
The WHO isn't the only organization urging the fully vaccinated to mask up indoors. Officials from the Los Angeles County Department of Health have similar advice, asking that "people wear masks indoors in settings such as grocery or retail stores; theaters and family entertainment centers, and workplaces when you don’t know everyone’s vaccination status." L.A. health officials specifically cite the Delta variant as the reason for the advice.
“Until we better understand how and to who the Delta variant is spreading, everyone should focus on maximum protection with minimum interruption to routine as all businesses operate without other restrictions, like physical distancing and capacity limits," a statement from the agency reads.
The CDC has not changed its masking guidance or indicated that it plans to.
Other areas have not echoed the WHO's advice — yet. No other states or local health agencies have announced more stringent masking guidance due to the Delta variant. Ten states still have mask mandates in place for the unvaccinated, according to the AARP, but they weren't created in response to the spread of the Delta variant.
Many infectious disease experts tell Yahoo Life that they don't anticipate Los Angeles County's recommendation to spark indoor mask mandates or even recommendations again.
"That advice would be largely ignored by the public anyway," Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life.
"The concern here is that it's not clear how well the vaccines prevent infection from the Delta variant and whether people who are vaccinated could not only be infected but be transmitters of the Delta variant," Schaffner says. "That's why the WHO is doing this."
But infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life that there isn't really evidence to suggest this is an issue. "I do not think that the data supports that fully vaccinated individuals need to wear a mask indoors because of Delta variant fears," he says. "The data that we have on fully vaccinated individuals is very robust, especially with the mRNA vaccines." The WHO may be addressing countries that have relied on the Sinopharm and Sinovac Biotech vaccines from China, which, he says, are "inferior" to the mRNA vaccines used in the U.S. and other countries in the West.
Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician and professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Life that it's "reasonable" to consider wearing masks indoors right now for added protection, given that the Delta variant has developed such a stronghold in the country. "There is a little more leeway when outside and social distancing can be maintained," he says.
Ultimately, it comes down to the individual, Dr. Tim Murphy, senior associate dean for clinical and translational research at the University at Buffalo in New York, tells Yahoo Life. "People should assess their own situation and make their own decision about wearing masks indoors," he says. "People who have underlying illnesses may want to consider that a mask will give you an extra layer of protection. At this point, it's really a judgment call."
It's worth noting, though, that infectious disease experts aren't changing their masking habits. "I'm not wearing a mask now, but I'm in a low virus area," Murphy says. Adalja also doesn't seem concerned. "I am not changing my mask-wearing behavior based on the Delta variant," he says.
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