Credit: Debora Cartagena | CDC

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COVID-19 is making a comeback, surging in some areas of the country through the Delta variant. 

On Tuesday, July 27, this case spike prompted the federal government to make new public indoor masking recommendations.

Health experts say that Delta, which was first identified in India earlier this year, is more contagious than previous strains of COVID-19. More research is needed to show whether the Delta variant is more deadly or causes more severe illness than other versions of the virus, according to The New York Times.

The new recommendations mark an about-face from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Just two months ago, the CDC declared fully vaccinated people no longer needed to worry about masking or practice social distancing in public. But these days, the Delta variant is pushing newly confirmed COVID-19 cases to levels not seen since April, during the last wave of infections.

The CDC announcement cited new evidence that the “breakthrough” infections that may hit fully vaccinated people can cause them to carry high viral loads and possibly pass the disease on to others. 

But the new recommendations don’t add up a universal mask mandate. The CDC has not suggested that fully vaccinated people wear masks in all settings. With this divided message comes inevitable confusion. Below, Sahan Journal breaks down the new recommendations. 

I’m fully vaccinated. Why am I supposed to wear a mask now? 

During a news conference on Tuesday afternoon, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky cited new scientific studies that indicate vaccinated people can still carry high loads of the virus and transmit it to other people. Fully vaccinated people who get infected aren’t likely to get severe illness or go to the hospital. They may be infectious without realizing it. 

Because of this, the CDC now recommends fully vaccinated people still mask indoors in areas of the country where the virus is transmitting at “high” or “substantial” levels. 

What does “high” or “substantial” transmission mean? 

These designations apply to any area where new cases average 50 for every 100,000 people. On its website, the CDC breaks areas down on the county level. Minnesota currently looks to be doing fairly well, with about 16 percent of the state experiencing transmission levels high enough to require vaccinated people to mask. In contrast, the CDC currently lists high or substantial transmission rates across two-thirds of the entire country. 

Where in Minnesota should I mask?

The CDC currently lists 14 of Minnesota’s 87 counties as areas where vaccinated people should mask. Those counties include:

Northern Minnesota:

  • Lake of the Woods County
  • Roseau County
  • Lake County

Western Minnesota:

  • Traverse County
  • Wilkin County
  • Pope County
  • Swift County

Central Minnesota:

  • Mille Lacs County
  • Isanti County

Twin Cities Metro:

  • Scott County

Southwestern Minnesota:

  • Redwood County
  • Cottonwood County

Southern Minnesota: 

  • Waseca County
  • Dodge County

Should I wear a mask outdoors to protect myself and others? 

The CDC still considers outdoor activities largely safe for vaccinated people and does not urge masking in these settings. 

Are fully vaccinated people getting infected through “breakthrough” cases?

So far in Minnesota, the data show that breakthrough cases remain rare. The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) currently reports that fully vaccinated people make up less than 1 percent of newly confirmed cases in the state.

As was the case before the new guidelines, the CDC still recommends anyone exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms get tested for the virus, regardless of whether they’ve been vaccinated. The same goes for anyone who is aware of having been exposed to the virus. 

Who else should wear masks indoors in public settings?

For the coming school year, the CDC recommends all students, teachers, and school personnel in K–12 schools wear masks indoors. As was the case before, the CDC also recommends all unvaccinated people across the board mask indoors in public. This especially includes children under the age of 12, who are not yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccines. 

In what other situations should fully vaccinated people mask up? 

People with health conditions that put them at a risk of severe illness should still mask indoors, the CDC says. 

Are state or local officials making additional masking recommendations in Minnesota?

Not yet, but MDH spokesperson Doug Schultz said that both the health department and the Minnesota Department of Education “will be using the updated CDC guidance to inform our state guidance, including our school guidance coming out in the near future.” 

“We know vaccination rates vary significantly on a county-by-county level and cases are rapidly increasing throughout Minnesota,” Schultz said. “It’s important that we use every tool at our disposal, including vaccination and masking, to slow the spread of this more contagious variant and to prevent the development of additional variants.”

Joey Peters

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. His work has appeared in Reuters, Public Radio International, Columbia Journalism Review, KFAI Radio, the Pioneer Press, City Pages, MinnPost and more. He previously...