Editor’s note: This story was updated Wednesday afternoon with the latest data from the CDC.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now advising residents in most North Carolina counties to wear masks indoors, whether they’re vaccinated or not.
Calling the continued pandemic “a serious threat to the health of all Americans” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said new evidence shows the delta variant of the COVID-19 virus can, “in rare occasions,” spread from some vaccinated people to others. That behavior in what has now become the dominant strain in the U.S. makes it different from past variants of the virus.
“This new science is worrisome and unfortunately warrants an update to our recommendations,” Walensky said.
To prevent that spread and fight a recent surge of the disease, the CDC now recommends masks for fully vaccinated people in public indoor spaces in parts of the country with “high” or “substantial” rates of community transmission. Guidance for all unvaccinated residents to wear masks — regardless of where they live — remains unchanged.
As of data through July 26, the CDC considers all but 14 counties in North Carolina to have high or substantial community spread, including Wake and Mecklenburg.
The southeastern part of the state has particularly high rates of transmission under the CDC’s definition, which takes into account total new COVID-19 cases and the percentage of positive tests for the disease over the past 7 days. Those counties — among them Bladen, Hoke and Robeson — have some of the least vaccinated populations in the state.
Until the CDC posted new data Wednesday afternoon, Alleghany County in the northwestern part of the state was the only one to meet the CDC’s definition of low community transmission. Now, every county has a designation of moderate spread or higher.
The new guidance also recommends “universal indoor masking” for schools, including all students, staff and visitors, vaccinated or not.
Tuesday’s announcement may mean new policies for employers and businesses across the state, which have largely removed requirements for vaccinated customers and workers to mask up.
It may also mean changes to Gov. Roy Cooper’s mask mandates — Cooper scheduled a press conference with members of the state Coronavirus Task Force for Thursday, The News & Observer reported.
In the CDC news conference Tuesday, Walensky urged the public to get vaccinated, stressing that it’s proven effective at protecting people and fortifying the population against variants.
“Getting vaccinated continues to prevent severe illness, hospitalization and death — even with Delta,” she said.