In response to the spread of the COVID-19 Delta variant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued new guidance on July 27, 2021. In the updated Guidance for Fully Vaccinated People, the CDC recommends that fully vaccinated people wear masks indoors in public in areas of substantial or high transmission. The revised guidance also recommends that fully vaccinated people be tested within three to five days after known exposure to COVID-19 and wear a mask indoors in public for 14 days or until they test negative. This guidance changes the CDC’s May 2021 guidance, which stated that fully vaccinated individuals did not need to wear masks outdoors or indoors, even in crowded situations and in close proximity to unvaccinated persons, or be tested or isolate after an exposure. However, with COVID-19 positivity rates and hospitalizations increasing as a result of the Delta variant, in-person school set to resume next month and vaccination rates stagnating, the CDC’s guidance takes a more guarded approach than before. While the guidance is not specifically directed at employers, it has implications that impact the workplace.
What Employers Need to Know
The CDC’s new guidance recommends that individuals wear a mask “indoors in public” if they are in an area of “substantial or high transmission.” The CDC’s guidance does not elaborate on the meaning of “public” settings within the revised guidance. But the common definition of a public setting is an indoor place to which the public has access by right or invitation. While OSHA has not issued any guidance in responses to the CDC’s new guidance, it has in the past simply adopted prior CDC guidance and applied it to the workplace. Employers operating a business that is open to the public, such as grocery stores, restaurants and theaters, should follow the new guidance in all spaces open to the public.
The CDC currently defines “substantial or high transmission” as greater than 50 new cases per 100,000 persons in the past seven days. To assist individuals in making the decision to mask, the CDC has created a helpful interactive map that identifies each U.S. county’s current transmission status. As of the time of this alert, 63.45 percent of U.S. counties were classified by the CDC as “substantial or high transmission,” including, in Texas, Bexar, Dallas, Harris, and Travis counties.
In addition to the new masking recommendations, the CDC has revised its recommendations for testing vaccinated individuals after exposure to COVID-19. Until Tuesday, the CDC’s guidance provided that, if a person has been fully vaccinated, they did not need to stay away from others or get tested unless the person experienced symptoms of COVID-19. The CDC’s new guidance, however, provides that fully vaccinated individuals who have been exposed to COVID-19 should get tested three to five days after exposure, even if the individual does not have any symptoms. Moreover, the CDC recommends that such individuals wear masks indoors in public for 14 days following exposure or until testing negative, regardless of whether they are in an area of “substantial or high transmission.”
The updated guidance also notes that fully vaccinated individuals may choose to mask, no matter the level of transmission if they or someone in their household is immunocompromised or at increased risk for severe disease or if they live with someone who is unvaccinated.
The new guidance does not discuss social distancing and makes clear that individuals should follow all applicable local laws, rules, regulations or guidance that require mask wearing. In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott issued a statement following the release of the CDC’s new guidance emphasizing that, regardless of the CDC’s recommendations, Texas would not require masks and would leave the decision up to Texans. Governor Abbott previously rescinded the state’s mask mandate, though required masking remains optional for non-government employers.
What Employers Should Do
Employers should continue to diligently take steps to protect against COVID-19 infections in the workplace. Workplaces are unique, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Employers should therefore continue to monitor state and local guidance, evaluate potential exposure in their workplaces, and identify what changes may need to be made to reduce the specific risk of workplace exposure to COVID-19 for their employees. Additionally, all employers should update their protocols for vaccinated employees who are exposed to COVID-19 to reflect the CDC’s new guidance.