SALT LAKE CITY — Americans who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 should go back to wearing masks in public indoor settings, along with everyone at K-12 schools, to slow the spread of the highly contagious delta variant in virus hot spots, according to new recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released Tuesday.
The change comes because of new science showing the delta variant — now responsible for 80% of coronavirus cases in the United States — not only is causing breakthrough cases of COVID-19 in fully vaccinated people but also allows them to spread the deadly disease, said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, CDC director.
The delta variant that originated in India is blamed for what's been described as an alarming surge in COVID-19 cases in Utah that is filling hospital beds. Tuesday, the Utah Department of Health reported 613 new cases and seven additional deaths from the coronavirus,
"This new science is worrisome and unfortunately warrants an update to our recommendation," Walensky told reporters on a conference call. The CDC announced in May that only those who are unvaccinated need to wear masks.
That earlier decision was welcomed by Gov. Spencer Cox as "healthy for our souls and it's healthy for our country." The governor's spokeswoman, Jennifer Napier-Pearce, did not specifically address the CDC's turnaround in a statement.
"Gov. Cox continues to urge all eligible Utahns to get vaccinated. It's the most effective way to protect against hospitalizations and death due to COVDI-19. He also urges those who cannot or will not get vaccinated to wear masks to help protect themselves and others," she said.
Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said in a statement: "We function better as a government entity when we inform the public of the facts. It is the role of the government to collect data and then inform and educate the public. After that, it comes down to individual choice."
Adams, who encouraged eligible Utahns to get vaccinated given the state's increasing case numbers, said "K-12 students must have options to return to full-time, in-person learning this school year."
A spokeswoman for Utah House Speaker Brad Willson, R-Kaysville, said he was not available Tuesday.
Utah's statewide mask mandate was lifted in April by the Utah Legislature. State lawmakers also ended all virus-related restrictions, including requiring masks in schools, and limited the powers of other entities to re-impose mandates.
Last week. Dr. Angela Dunn, now head of the Salt Lake County Health Department after stepping down as state epidemiologist, asked that county residents send their children under 12 back to school in masks but said any attempt to mandate face coverings was "futile" because of opposition by legislative leaders.
Dunn said Tuesday that as the delta variant spreads through the state, "it's important to implement multiple layers of prevention" and that she will be following the CDCs new recommendation because Salt Lake County is experiencing substantial transmission and she doesn't "know who around me is unvaccinated."
She said her "focus is on providing and encouraging vaccination, and on protecting the children in our community who are too young to be vaccinated" and that "not all of our populations have reached a high enough level of vaccination to have herd immunity and provide protection throughout the community."
Currently, less than 46% of all Utahns are fully vaccinated against the virus, meaning its been two weeks or more since their final dose.
Our guidance remains that unvaccinated people should choose to wear masks in indoor settings, including schools. So, no change based on the CDC announcement.
–Utah Department of Health spokesman Tom Hudachko
The CDC's recommendations go beyond Dunn's, which only applied to schoolchildren under 12 who aren't eligible yet for the COVID-19. vaccine, the federal agency is calling for everyone at all K-12 schools to be masked, even if they are already vaccinated.
The new recommendations don't alter the state health department's advice on masks, spokesman Tom Hudachko said.
"Our guidance remains that unvaccinated people should choose to wear masks in indoor settings, including schools," he said. "So, no change based on the CDC announcement."
And Mark Peterson, spokesman for the Utah Board of Education, said the board takes advice from the state and local health departments in Utah.
"We can't issue public health orders. That's beyond our scope. That's entirely within both the state and local health departments," Peterson said.
Utah Education Association President Heidi Matthews said she was "glad for some consistent guidance on what has become a very divisive topic. We have to be looking out for the health and safety and well-being of all of our kids in schools, particularly those who have no choice about being vaccinated, our young ones."
Matthews said she hopes "this guidance from the health experts causes a chance for pause and a revision of any mandates that wouldn't allow the recommendations to be put into place."
There have been increased concerns about breakthrough cases of the virus in Utah, although they still remain rare.
Walensky said for someone who is fully vaccinated against the virus, the risk of getting infected with COVID-19 after being exposed to the delta variant is reduced seven-fold, and the risk of being hospitalized or dying, by 20-fold.
The CDC recommendations apply to people living in areas with substantial and high transmission. According to the state health department, all but nine of Utah's 29 counties are considered to have high or moderate transmission rates.
Han Kim, a professor of public health at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, said the lawmakers who are now in control of the state's response to COVID-19 are likely to "shrug off" the federal masking recommendations, even though the state now has the nation's 11th highest count per capita of COVID-19 cases.
"They might actually double down," Kim said, adding that with mask mandates gone in Utah, "what is this really doing? People who are listening, who are going to wear a mask, will. People who are not going to, won't. It's really not going to change things."
The about-face by the CDC is no doubt frustrating to many, he said, even though the federal agency is responding to new outbreaks. The original decision to tell Americans they no longer needed to mask up once they were vaccinated was intended as a reward, Kim said, and now the nation's vaccinated may feel punished.
"We have to be able to change our policies dependent on the situation and the situation right now in the U.S. isn't great," he said, especially since vaccinations have stalled. "If we could get 80% of the folks vaccinated, we wouldn't be having this discussion at all."