Health

Should Vaccinated People Keep Wearing Masks as the Delta Coronavirus Variant Spreads?

People who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 may want to play it safe and continue taking precautions, the World Health Organization (WHO) said, including wearing masks. These new recommendations may seem at odds with those from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but experts say that they make sense—especially as the contagious Delta variant continues to spread.

“I know that globally there is currently a lot of concern about the Delta variant, and WHO is concerned about it too,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Ph.D., director-general of the WHO, said in a recent press briefing. “Delta is the most transmissible of the variants identified so far. It has been identified in at least 85 countries and is spreading rapidly among unvaccinated populations.”

With the Delta variant in mind, WHO officials restated the importance of public-health safety measures, including washing your hands, prioritizing good ventilation, physical distancing, and wearing masks. “This still continues to be extremely important, even if you are vaccinated, when you have a community transmission ongoing,” said Mariângela Simão, M.D., assistant director-general at the WHO. “So, people cannot feel safe just because they had the two doses. They still need to protect themselves.” 

Fully vaccinated people have a much lower risk of getting the infection, getting severe symptoms from the infection, and passing the infection along to others. But unvaccinated and partially vaccinated people are still vulnerable—particularly to this variant of the virus. 

“We still live in a world that is only partially vaccinated that has a lot of susceptibility, a lot of vulnerability,” Bruce Aylward, M.D., MPH, senior advisor to the WHO director-general, said in the briefing. “So, what we’re saying is once you’ve been fully vaccinated, continue to play it safe because you could end up as part of a transmission chain. You may not actually be fully protected.”

For those of us in the U.S., the WHO recommendations on masks may seem quite different from those the CDC put out previously. Back in May, the CDC said that fully vaccinated people do not have to wear masks at all—indoors and outdoors. And CDC director Rochelle Walensky, M.D., MPH, confirmed today that those guidelines remain in place. 

“There are places around the world that are surging, and so as the WHO makes those recommendations, they do so in that context,” Dr. Walensky told Today. And it’s true that the U.S. is in a globally unique position with 57% of the adult population fully vaccinated, according to CDC data

However, Dr. Walensky did say that local governments should make their own safety policies based on the unique level of spread in their communities. So in areas of the country with higher levels of the virus (particularly the Delta variant, which now accounts for an increasing amount of cases in the U.S.), continued mask mandates even for fully vaccinated people may make sense. In fact, Los Angeles County’s public health officials just urged everyone—vaccinated and unvaccinated—to keep wearing masks due to the Delta variant, the Washington Post reports.

Still, some experts say it might be a good idea to follow the WHO guidelines for masks more widely in the U.S. “I know this may be hard to hear and changes in recommendations can get confusing. But the truth is, the Delta variant is better at infecting people and spreading. To prevent infection then, and protect those who remain unvaccinated from exposure, we ALL have to mask indoors,” Rhea Boyd, M.D., MPH, a pediatrician and child health advocate whose work focuses on the effects of racism on health, wrote on Twitter.



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