Gov. Laura Kelly tours a vaccine clinic March 15 in Topeka. The governor says the state is at a crossroads as the Delta variant causes a surge in COVID-19 cases. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
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 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.
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly said her administration has consistently followed guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “and we don’t intend to stop.”
“Right now, Kansas is at a crossroads,” Kelly said. “The new Delta variant has caused COVID-19 to surge in our communities and some of our hospitals are moving towards capacity. The bad news is that parts of our state fall into the hot spot category for new cases. The good news is we have a vaccine to protect us from the virus that is safe, effective against severe illness, hospitalization and death, and free.”
CDC data shows 56.5% of Kansas adults are fully vaccinated. New case numbers in Kansas have multiplied over the course of July, and Kansas as of Tuesday is rated among states that have a high level of community transmission. Kansas health officials have reported 45 new deaths from COVID-19 in the past week.
“For those who are vaccinated, I ask that you speak with your friends, neighbors, and loved ones who are unvaccinated and encourage them to get vaccinated to protect themselves and our state,” Kelly said.
Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a candidate for the Republican nomination for governor in 2022, said he was disappointed in the “conflicting and ever-changing COVID guidance from the Biden administration.”
“Bottom line: no mask mandates, no vaccine mandates, no vaccine passports, no more government control. Respect individual liberties and trust Kansans to make decisions for their families,” Schmidt said.
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 CDC director Rochelle Walensky.
Wearing a mask indoors in areas with “substantial” or “high” transmission of the virus could help to reduce further outbreaks of the highly contagious Delta variant, she said.
Thirty-nine states have infection rates that have reached “substantial” or “high” levels of transmission, according to a data tracker on the CDC website.
The agency also tracks infection rates on the county level, and 63% of U.S. counties are in those two categories of concern. That includes 85 of the 105 counties in Kansas.
“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.
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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