The Atlantic Daily: How to Process the New CDC Mask Guidelines

The CDC updated its masking guidelines in light of the Delta variant’s potential to infect the vaccinated. Try to take the news in stride.

Masked individuals in Los Angeles
Visitors to the Grand Central Market in Los Angeles, CA (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times / Getty)

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The CDC is now recommending fully vaccinated Americans return to wearing masks in indoor spaces in communities where coronavirus transmission is substantial or high. And that news might just make your stomach sink.

I called up our staff writer Katherine J. Wu after the agency’s press conference today to help make sense of the new guidelines. She encouraged Americans to see them not as a setback but rather as a par-for-the-course adjustment.

The conversation that follows has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Can you explain a little bit about what we learned about the Delta variant today?

The most important thing that the CDC said today is that fully vaccinated people can get infected with Delta, carry it in high amounts in their airways, and potentially transmit it to other people.

This helps us put the mask recommendation in context. Vaccines are still doing a very good job at preventing severe disease, hospitalization, and death. Breakthrough cases with symptoms remain rare. The question we’re asking is, “How are we going to stop transmission of this virus, especially to unvaccinated people?”

How can you know if your area has substantial or high transmission?

The easiest way to tell is to go to the CDC’s COVID Data Tracking website and see what places are orange (substantial transmission) or red (high transmission).

Should I consider taking additional precautions besides masking?

This is so context dependent. Even the CDC’s recommendation is not “Everyone masks all the time, wherever you go, full stop.”

Check your local conditions. Think of your own vaccination status. Plan accordingly. We have a toolkit full of preventive measures, and people should be using multiple tools.

One big upshot of this is that masks and vaccines can work really well together. People should not be panicking and thinking that we’re back to square one—like spring of last year, when we had almost nothing except masks. We know so much more about how to prevent the spread of this disease.

Honestly, I probably will cut back a little bit on indoor social things where I don’t know whether people are vaccinated. That will just make me feel more personally comfortable. But it’s an individual decision for everyone. It’s always a balance, and every day is its own risk calculation.

Last week, you recommended checking virus conditions the way we check the weather. What should we look at?

A few things to pay attention to are vaccination, hospitalization, and case rates in your community. Is there an ongoing outbreak? Is the health system overstretched? And then balance all of that against the risk that you want to take on as an individual.

If you’re immunocompromised or older or the parent of a child who’s not yet eligible for vaccination, your risk tolerance might be a little lower.

Do we expect further rollbacks or shutdowns this summer or going into the fall and winter?

It depends so much on how the next few weeks go. There are still more people getting vaccinated every day. If those rates pick up, then maybe we can prevent the next outbreak.

What does today’s news foretell about the future of this pandemic?

The key thing to keep in mind is that we have to be flexible. The virus basically threw us a curveball. I don’t think this change in guidance necessarily means we got the science wrong two months ago. It means that the threat has evolved since then, and we need to adjust accordingly. And that’s going to keep happening. The goal is to just adjust to our surroundings.

Take this in stride, and understand why this happened. A vaccine is going to perform differently in different circumstances, and circumstances have changed.

The news in three sentences:

(1) Capitol Police officers recounted horrifying details from the January 6 insurrection before Congress. (2) Simone Biles, one of the greatest U.S. athletes of all time, withdrew from the team-gymnastics finals at the Tokyo Olympics because of mental-health concerns. (3) The alleged Atlanta spa shooter pleaded guilty to four counts of murder.

One question, answered: What does a breakthrough infection mean for my immune system? Katie investigated the matter last week:

By definition, these infections occur in immune systems that already recognize the virus and can learn from it again. Each subsequent encounter with SARS-CoV-2 might effectively remind the body that the pathogen’s threat still looms, coaxing cells into reinvigorating their defenses and sharpening their coronavirus-detecting skills, and prolonging the duration of protection.

Some of that familiarity might ebb with certain variants. But in broad strokes, a post-inoculation infection can be “like a booster for the vaccine,” [Laura] Su, of the University of Pennsylvania, told me ...

That’s certainly no reason to seek out infection. But should such a mishap occur, there’s a good chance that “continuously training immune cells can be a really good thing,” Nicole Baumgarth, an immunologist at UC Davis, told me. (Vaccination, by the way, might mobilize stronger protection than natural infection, and it’s less dangerous to boot.)

Read Katie’s full report on what breakthrough infections do to the vaccinated body.

Tonight’s Atlantic-approved activity:

Read a poem: Try “Attention” by Leila Chatti.

A break from the news:

America’s investing boom goes far beyond Reddit bros.

Every weekday evening, our editors guide you through the biggest stories of the day, help you discover new ideas, and surprise you with moments of delight. Subscribe to get this delivered to your inbox.