On July 27, 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revised its COVID-19 guidance, recommending that even individuals who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 should resume wearing masks in public indoor settings in those areas of the U.S. that have substantial or high COVID-19 transmission rates. This announcement revises the CDC’s May 2021 guidance that fully vaccinated individuals could stop wearing masks and discontinue physical distancing in most settings.
The CDC notes that breakthrough COVID-19 infections “happen in only a small proportion of people who are fully vaccinated,” but that those infected “can spread the virus to others.” As such, the CDC now recommends that fully vaccinated individuals who have a known exposure to someone with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 obtain a COVID-19 test 3 to 5 days following the exposure, and wear a mask in public indoor settings for 14 days or until they receive a negative test result, whichever is sooner. In addition, the CDC continues to recommend that fully vaccinated individuals “get tested if experiencing COVID-19 symptoms,” and “isolate if they have tested positive for COVID-19 in the prior 10 days or are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.”
Finally, the CDC now recommends universal indoor masking for all persons in K-12 schools, including teachers, staff, students and visitors, regardless of their vaccination status.
The CDC had been expected to issue new guidance given the significant increase in new U.S. COVID-19 cases and breakthrough cases over the past month, which has been driven by the more infectious Delta variant. Like previous CDC announcements, however, today’s guidance is primarily aimed at individuals rather than businesses. Employers will continue to face implementation and logistical challenges in applying this new guidance to workplaces, while still applying pre-existing public health guidance for unvaccinated individuals.
So Now What?
Tuesday’s announcement reflects the CDC’s effort to respond to recent data relating to the Delta variant and a recognition that risk assessments are not static in a pandemic. Employers that do not simply want to mandate masks across the board face the prospect of hitting “refresh” every day to determine whether tomorrow will be a mask day. As has been the case at various times throughout the pandemic, the CDC is not providing one-size-fits-all answers.
Employers should understand that the CDC has set the triggering point for safety restrictions at a very low level of case transmission. Decisions by state or local authorities as to whether to formally re-impose requirements will depend, in part, on more tangible factors than transmission rate alone, including the actual impact on community health care systems and the way their employees work. Employers should monitor for updates in state and local guidance, reevaluate their exposure control plans, determine what changes may be needed to reduce the risk of workplace exposure to COVID-19, and establish appropriate rules for their onsite workforce. Employers also should evaluate community public health considerations, their employees’ actual vaccination status, and their own levels of risk tolerance in establishing a path forward.