CDC Does an About-Face on Mask Guidance for Vaccinated Individuals

Alerts / July 29, 2021

On July 27, 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued updated Interim Public Health Recommendations for Fully Vaccinated People (Updated CDC Guidance). The Updated CDC Guidance is based upon new evidence related to the Delta variant – namely, that it is highly contagious, and that even those who are fully vaccinated can contract and spread it. As a result, this variant has spread throughout the world, and it has been increasingly prevalent across the United States. 

As discussed in an earlier post, on May 13, 2021, the CDC issued Interim Public Health Recommendations for Fully Vaccinated People, which stated, inter alia, that (1) fully vaccinated individuals no longer needed to wear a mask or physically distance in most settings and (2) most fully vaccinated people could refrain from testing following a known exposure to COVID-19. 

Now What Is the CDC Saying?

1. Masks Are Back

Drastically backtracking from the CDC’s earlier guidance, the Updated CDC Guidance now recommends that all individuals, regardless of vaccination status, wear a mask in all public indoor settings in geographical areas demonstrating “substantial” or “high” levels of COVID-19 community transmission. The Updated CDC Guidance explains that fully vaccinated people may choose to wear a mask regardless of the level of community transmission, particularly if they are immunocompromised or at increased risk for severe disease from COVID-19, or if they have someone in their household who is immunocompromised, at increased risk for severe disease or not fully vaccinated.

Although the term “public indoor setting” is not defined in the Updated CDC Guidance, based on application of previous federal, state and local guidance and the World Health Organization’s definition, such areas are likely to include any indoor setting outside the household, such as retail stores, offices, restaurants, malls and movie theaters. The CDC defines “substantial” community transmission as either (1) 50 to 99.99 total new cases per 100,000 persons in the past seven days or (2) 8.00 percent to 9.99 percent positivity rate for nucleic acid amplification tests (NAATs) during the past seven days. High community transmission is defined as either (1) 100 or more total new cases per 100,000 persons in the past seven days or (2) at least 10 percent positivity rate for NAATs during the past seven days. As of the date of this post, 68.42 percent of the states, territories and jurisdictions in the United States are currently designated as having either “substantial” or “high” levels of COVID-19 transmission. As a helpful resource to determine the current transmission level for your location, the CDC website a website identifying these designations at the state and county levels throughout the United States. The CDC stated that it will continually update this information by 8 p.m. ET Monday through Saturday.

2. Vaccinated Individuals Exposed to COVID-19 Should Be Tested and Wear Masks for 14 Days or Until Receipt of a Negative Test

Additionally, and in a further departure from its previous guidance, the CDC now recommends that fully vaccinated individuals who have a known exposure to someone with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 get tested between three and five days after exposure and also wear a mask indoors in all public settings (regardless of the locale’s current transmission level) for 14 days or until they receive a negative test result. Finally, the Updated CDC Guidance recommends indoor mask wearing for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to schools, regardless of their vaccination status or the locale’s current transmission level. 

What does this mean for employers?
  • You should find out and routinely monitor whether you are in a substantial or high community transmission area.
  • If you are in a substantial or high community transmission area, you should reevaluate your mask policies to ensure they align with the Updated CDC Guidance.
  • Be sure to monitor for additional guidance to be issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and state and local governments requiring adherence to this Updated CDC Guidance or to measures potentially more restrictive than the Updated CDC Guidance.
  • Update any return-to-work training to ensure you are aligned with the Updated CDC Guidance and any other applicable guidance with respect to masking and post-COVID-19 exposure testing requirements for fully vaccinated individuals.

Due to the ever-changing landscape of federal, state and local guidance regarding COVID-19, employers are encouraged to contact a member of our Labor and Employment Group to ensure that they have the most up-to-date information and are in compliance with currently applicable standards. 

Authorship Credit: Amy Traub, Amanda Van Hoose Garofalo and Justin Guilfoyle 

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