Vaccinated and Masked: CDC Changes Course, Recommends Vaccinated Individuals Mask Indoors Where COVID-19 Transmission is “Substantial or High”

McDermott Will & Emery

On July 27, 2021, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revised its COVID-19 mask guidance, recommending that fully vaccinated individuals should wear a mask in indoor public spaces if they are located in areas of “substantial or high” levels of community transmission. Employers should review their mask policies for employees in light of this new recommendation.


On July 27, 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued new COVID-19 mask guidance for the general public, including US-based workforces. Specifically, the CDC recommends that fully vaccinated individuals should wear a mask indoors in public if they are located in an area of “substantial or high” levels of community transmission.

The CDC maintains a map showing the level of transmission in each county over a specified seven-day period. As of July 27, 2021, 63.45% of US counties were at “substantial” or “high” levels of community transmission, meaning the county saw at least 50 new cases per 100,000 persons (i.e., at least 8% of COVID-19 tests were positive) during the past seven days.

This new guidance is in stark contrast to the CDC’s May 2021 recommendation that fully vaccinated individuals no longer needed to wear masks in most situations. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky stated that the change in guidance is “to help prevent the spread of the Delta variant and help protect others” in response to a recent rise in COVID-19 cases. While Walensky stated that vaccinated individuals represent a “very small amount of transmission” and the overwhelming majority of new infections, hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID-19 are occurring in unvaccinated individuals, vaccinated people can still contract the virus and pass it to others.

While CDC guidance is not a legal requirement, it is expected that many state and local governments will follow suit with orders requiring compliance with this latest CDC standard. In fact, prior to the CDC announcement, some counties such as Los Angeles, California, and St. Louis, Missouri, had already reinstated mask mandates.

Employers should work closely with legal counsel to monitor jurisdictions where they operate. Those with dual-level workplace mask policies—requiring masks for unvaccinated employees, while remaining silent as to masks for fully vaccinated employees—should review such policies in light of this new CDC guidance, and in conjunction with review of levels of community transmission in their communities of operation.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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