CDC leaving it as much as states to set tips for masks, director says

Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), takes off a protective mask during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, May 19, 2021.

Greg Nash | Bloomberg | Getty Images

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday the U.S. agency is leaving it up to states and local health officials to set guidelines around mask-wearing even after the World Health Organization urged fully vaccinated people to continue the practice.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has “always said that local policymakers need to make policies for their local environment,” Walensky said during an interview on the NBC program “TODAY.” She added that the agency’s guidelines broadly recommend that vaccinated people don’t need to wear masks.

“There are areas of this country where about a third of people are vaccinated, they have low vaccination rates,” Walensky said. “There are areas where they have more disease in the context of people not being vaccinated. So, in those areas, we’ve always said please look, make suggestions.”

She added, “If you are vaccinated, you are safe from the variants that are circulating here in the United States.”

The CDC director’s comments come days after WHO officials urged fully vaccinated people to continue to wear masks, social distance and practice other pandemic safety measures as the highly contagious delta variant spreads rapidly across the globe.

Delta, now in at least 92 countries, including the United States, is expected to become the dominant variant of the disease worldwide, according to the WHO. In the U.S., the prevalence of the strain is doubling about every two weeks.

WHO officials said Friday they are asking fully vaccinated people to continue to “play it safe” because a large portion of the world remains unvaccinated and highly contagious variants, like delta, are spreading in many countries and spurring outbreaks.

“People cannot feel safe just because they had the two doses. They still need to protect themselves,” Dr. Mariangela Simao, WHO assistant director-general for access to medicines and health products, said during a news briefing.

The WHO’s comments were a departure from the CDC, which has said fully vaccinated Americans can go maskless in most settings, and sparked widespread confusion.

Walensky said Wednesday that the WHO makes recommendations for a global population, adding many regions of the world remain unvaccinated.

“When the WHO makes those recommendations, they do so in that context,” she said.

Still, while many states have lifted most of their mask restrictions, places like Mississippi are recommending that residents continue to wear masks indoors even if they are fully vaccinated.

Delta is the dominant variant in Mississippi right now and only 31% of the state’s eligible population is vaccinated, state health officials said on a call late Tuesday. About 96% of new Covid cases are unvaccinated people, they added.

– CNBC’s Rich Mendez contributed to this report.

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