US health officials prepare U-turn on masks for vaccinated

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The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is set to revise its guidance for vaccinated people on wearing masks indoors, in a major climbdown from a decision it made just two months ago.

The public health body will recommend that vaccinated people should wear masks in indoor places if local case rates are high, according to one person briefed on the decision, who confirmed an earlier report in the New York Times. An announcement is expected later on Tuesday.

The CDC relaxed its guidance earlier this summer to recommend that fully vaccinated people could remove their masks in all settings, a move that some experts criticised as premature. But with the Delta variant causing a surge in infections across the US, the organisation will change its guidance again.

After a rapid rollout of vaccines this spring, Covid-19 infections in the US began to drop sharply, prompting federal and local officials to relax pandemic-related restrictions and guidance for vaccinated people.

But that trend has reversed in recent weeks as the rate of vaccine take-up has slowed. New cases now top more than 60,000 a day, the highest level since April, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The rise has been attributed to the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant, especially in parts of the country where fewer people are vaccinated. CDC director Rochelle Walensky earlier this month said the US was battling a “pandemic of the unvaccinated”.

Mask rules in the US remain a patchwork. Federal guidance has continued to recommend face coverings be worn in hospitals or on public transport, even if an individual is fully vaccinated.

In response to the rising numbers of new Covid-19 cases, several counties and cities have in recent weeks reinstated mask mandates, while other jurisdictions have recommended individuals wear masks in public indoor settings, regardless of vaccination status.

Los Angeles county became the most prominent major city to reinstate its mask requirement in mid-July, barely a month after it was lifted to coincide with the broad reopening of California’s economy. Its move has since been followed by St Louis, Missouri, and Savannah, Georgia, where mask mandates were reinstated on Monday.

New Orleans, several counties around Las Vegas, Sacramento and Philadelphia have all recommended that residents wear masks in public indoor settings, regardless of vaccination status. At the state level, Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois are among those where leaders or public health officials have urged people to wear masks again.

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