Stock photo.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reversed their guidance on mask use in public indoor settings for vaccinated individuals in areas with high community transmission, citing an increase of breakthrough cases by the delta variant of the coronavirus.

The CDC is also recommending K-12 students and staff wear masks in the coming school year, regardless of vaccination status.

The delta variant of the virus is more contagious than previous variants, the CDC said in a press call today. New data on the delta variant suggests vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals shed similar levels of the virus, making it highly transmissible regardless of vaccination status. Vaccinated people, however, are still much less likely to become infected by the delta variant than unvaccinated people, and current data shows that vaccination is highly effective at preventing serious illness and death.

In light of this new data, the CDC is now recommending that vaccinated people in counties with high or substantial community transmission return to wearing masks in public indoor settings.

Long Island and New York City are both listed as areas in the CDC’s coronavirus county tracker as areas with substantial transmission, which are between 50 to 99 cases per 100,000 people in the past week. New York State had a 2.46% infection rate today, a more than 2% increase since New York State lifted state mandated restrictions on mask use for unvaccinated individuals, among other restrictions, in the middle of last month after 70% of the adult population received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine. 

Suffolk County had a 2.71% infection rate today, with an average of about 2.26% this past week.

Long Island and New York City are both identified as areas with “substantial” community transmission, according to the CDC’s latest data. Source: CDC

Governor Andrew Cuomo has not yet issued a statement on the updated guidance, although the state has consistently relied on CDC recommendations for their guidance during the pandemic.

The organization’s previous guidance was published in May. New York’s guidance for unvaccinated individuals is still consistent with CDC recommendations, which says they should wear a mask indoors and physically distance when possible. 

“The delta variant is showing every day its willingness to outsmart us and to be an opportunist in areas where we have not shown a fortified response against it,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said during a press conference today.

Eight out of ten genomic surveillance samples studied by the CDC now include the delta variant, she said. The variant is also the subject of recent outbreak investigations. 

Although the delta variant is transmissible even among the vaccinated, Walenski still recommends people get vaccinated. She said the risk for a breakthrough infection is reduced by sevenfold, and risk of hospitalization and death reduced by 20 fold, for vaccinated individuals.

Vaccinated individuals also make up a small percentage of people transmitting infections, and severe outbreaks are occurring in places with low vaccination rates, she said.

Walensky also said that getting vaccinated will decrease the spread of the virus and, in turn, stop genetic mutations that create variants like the delta variant and prolong the national health crisis. 

The CDC is also recommending students return in the fall with these mask restrictions in place. Locally, the Riverhead Central School District is pushing against mask guidance for students. The previous school board wrote a letter to the governor last month urging the state health department to leave mask mandates up to local school boards. 

“COVID-19 continues to present many challenges and has exacted a tremendous toll on our nation,” Walensky said. “We continue to follow the science closely and update the guidance should the science shift again. We must take every step we can to stop the delta variant and the pandemic.”

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.