CDC director stands firm on mask guidance, calls it 'individual choice' for vaccinated to wear one

The health agency is facing pressure to recommend masks for all individuals.

July 22, 2021, 5:58 PM

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is sticking with its guidance for now that only unvaccinated people need to wear masks to be safe -- and that vaccinated people are OK to go without, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told reporters on Thursday.

Walesnky's comments follow reports by report ">The Washington Post and CNN that the Biden administration is considering another revision on masks in light of the rapidly spreading delta variant.

Walensky said "we are always looking at the data as the data come in." But, she added, CDC mask guidance hasn't changed and that -- for now -- there's no need.

"Fully vaccinated people are protected from severe illness, and we've always said that communities and individuals to make the decisions that are right for them based on what's going on in their local areas," she said.

She later added: "In areas that have high and low amounts of vaccination ... if you're unvaccinated, you should absolutely be wearing a mask. If you're vaccinated, you have exceptional levels of protection from that vaccine, and you may choose to add an extra layer of protection by putting on your mask and that's a very individual choice."

Later on Thursday, President Joe Biden was quick to respond when pressed by ABC News on whether the administration might change its position on masks.

"We follow the science. What's happening now is all the major scientific operations ... are looking at all the possibilities of what's happening now," he said. "We have a pandemic among the non-vaccinated -- those who are not vaccinated."

Last May, the CDC stunned much of the country by suggesting vaccinated people could safely go without masks indoors, citing ample real-world evidence that people who are fully immunized are unlikely to get sick and unlikely to spread the virus.

Since then, a new variant of the virus has spread rapidly across unvaccinated pockets of the U.S., once again overwhelming health care workers who say victims of the delta variant are younger and sicker.

While health officials say the vaccines still work against the variant and that transmission is still considered less likely, the Biden administration has come under extraordinary pressure in recent weeks to consider doing more to curb the outbreaks and protect children under 12 who aren't eligible for vaccination.

PHOTO: Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci testify before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, July 20, 2021, in Washington, DC.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci testify before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, July 20, 2021, in Washington, DC.
J. Scott Applewhite/Getty Images

Former Surgeon General Jerome Adams said he thinks the CDC needs to backtrack because of the nationwide rise in cases. In an opinion article for the Post, Adams said he regrets not urging Americans to wear masks earlier in the pandemic -- a decision made to protect supplies for health care workers -- and thinks the CDC should learn from that mistake.

"In hindsight, it's clear that the message many Americans heard was that, vaccinated or not, masks were gone for good," he wrote.

Meanwhile, at least eight states have told schools they can't mandate masks, including in Florida where GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis said "there's not very much science behind it."

Numerous studies have shown that masking is extraordinarily effective at preventing the spread of the virus among unvaccinated people when done consistently.

"We need our kids to breathe. We need our kids to be able to be kids. We need them to be able to breathe," DeSantis said at a news conference Thursday.

Biden had caused some confusion late Wednesday when he said in a CNN town hall that he expected the CDC to issue new mask guidance that everyone under age 12 should wear masks in schools.

The CDC already issued that guidance on July 9, which calls on any unvaccinated staff and students to wear masks. Kids under 12 don't qualify for the vaccine.

When pressed on what internal discussions are under way with regard to masks, White House press secretary Jen Psaki was vague.

"It would be more concerning -- or should be more concerning to all of you and the American people if we were not having those conversations. So, there are certainly conversations about steps we can and should take," she told reporters.

ABC News's Matthew Vann contributed to this report.

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