Even fully vaccinated people should begin wearing a mask in public settings once again, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday.
That includes in schools, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said. Everyone in K-12 schools, including teachers, staff, students and visitors should wear a mask indoors, regardless of vaccination status, she said.
Charlotte-area hospital experts agree with the new mask guidelines, even as residents in recent months have grown accustomed to not wearing masks at supermarkets, restaurants, retail shops and even the Government Center in uptown.
Gov. Roy Cooper had lifted most mask mandates in May, while still requiring face coverings on public transit, child care centers, schools, prisons and public health settings. The order had been based on CDC guidance at the time.
Surrounding counties are also seeing high or substantial community spread.
Atrium Health infectious disease expert Dr. Katie Passaretti agreed with that assessment, she told reporters Tuesday.
“I would feel that we firmly fit in the moderate- to high-transmission rate right now,” Passaretti said. “And I would encourage people to wear masks in indoor settings to protect themselves to protect those around them for right now.”
The news comes amid a spike of COVID-19 cases in Mecklenburg and across the state. The spike has been linked to an increase in delta variant cases of COVID-19, a highly contagious strain of the virus.
More than one-third of local cases as of June 25 were identified as the highly transmissible delta variant, Mecklenburg County Public Health Director Gibbie Harris said in a statement Friday. But she also said Mecklenburg was not implementing any new restrictions or guidelines to slow the spread of COVID-19.
In a statement late Tuesday, Mecklenburg County Public Health said it supported the CDC’s guidance, “particularly given that Mecklenburg County is experiencing a high risk of spread per CDC metrics/guidance.”
New research on the delta variant shows that some fully vaccinated people infected with the variant may be able to spread COVID-19 to others, Walensky said Tuesday.
“This pandemic continues to pose a serious threat to the health of all Americans,” she said.
Vaccines still do an “exceptional job” at protecting vaccinated people from severe illness, hospitalization and death, Walensky said.
And the majority of COVID-19 transmission is between unvaccinated people, she said.
Still, she said, it’s important for fully vaccinated people to understand they could be passing along the disease to someone else, including children and people who are immunocompromised. That’s why the CDC is recommending that even fully vaccinated people begin wearing masks in public again.
But masking is a “temporary measure,” Walensky said. “What we really need to do to drive down transmissions in areas of high transmission is to get more and more people vaccinated. And in the meantime, wear masks.”
It is unclear how many so-called “breakthrough infections” among fully vaccinated people have occurred locally.
‘Delta variant is a real threat’
Low vaccination rates have contributed to the recent spike in cases as well, Passaretti said. That’s part of the reason why Atrium, Novant Health and Mecklenburg County Public Health are now requiring their employees to get inoculated.
Nearly half of Mecklenburg residents are not yet vaccinated, according to the latest state public health data. Immunization rates are uneven throughout the county, with persistent disparities still observed among Black and brown residents.
If people had continued getting vaccinated at rates comparable to the early vaccine rollout: “we would be having a different conversation right now,” Passaretti said. “But unfortunately, the vaccination rate in our communities just really plateaued.”
Novant Health also supports the new CDC guidelines, the hospital system said in a statement.
“When the CDC relaxed its guidelines for vaccinated individuals, community spread was down and the delta variant was not the dominant strain,” Novant Health said in the statement. “We supported their decision then, and we support their decision now with variant cases on the rise.
“…The CDC’s recommendation should send a strong signal to all of our communities that the delta variant is a real threat and must be taken seriously.”
Harris said the pandemic is once again growing in Mecklenburg, rather than “shrinking or holding steady.”
“All of the signs are indicating that the epidemic has new energy, especially among unvaccinated people,” Harris told the Observer last week. “Almost all cases, hospitalizations and deaths are among people who have not been vaccinated yet.”
Mecklenburg COVID data
Harris has repeatedly urged eligible residents to get vaccinated as coronavirus trends move in the wrong direction.
Hospitalizations have risen in Mecklenburg too, despite weeks of progress earlier in the summer. And people hospitalized with COVID-19 are getting younger, experts have said.
That’s because older age groups, who made up the majority of hospitalized patients early on in the pandemic, are highly vaccinated, Novant Health and Atrium Health doctors say.
In North Carolina, 86% of residents age 85 and older are at least partially vaccinated, compared to just 50% of the state’s total population, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.
In Mecklenburg, 52% of county residents are at least partially vaccinated as of Tuesday, state numbers show.