Fact-checking misinformation after CDC updates mask guidance for COVID-19

The CDC continues to encourage Americans to get vaccinated against COVID-19 as the highly transmissible Delta variant spreads across the country.

With the Delta variant of COVID-19 being the dominant variant of concern in the United States, now representing over 80% of cases across the country, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) once again updated its mask guidance for fully vaccinated people on July 27. 

Following the CDC’s announcement, misinformation began to spread online about why the update happened, with some people claiming that fully vaccinated people are transmitting the virus at a higher rate than unvaccinated people and that the CDC is now mandating mask-wearing throughout the entire country. 

The VERIFY team has answers for both of those claims. Here’s what you need to know. 

THE QUESTION

Are fully vaccinated people transmitting COVID-19 at a higher rate than unvaccinated people? 

THE SOURCES  

THE ANSWER

This is false.

No, fully vaccinated people are not transmitting COVID-19 at a higher rate than unvaccinated people. 

WHAT WE FOUND

In May, the CDC updated its face mask guidance and recommended that people who had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 no longer needed to wear masks in most settings, unless there was a federal, state or local requirement. However, that guidance still advised people who had not yet been vaccinated to wear a mask in most places.

Now, with only 49.2% of Americans fully vaccinated as of July 27, according to CDC data, and as the highly transmissible Delta variant spreads throughout most of the U.S, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during a press conference that the agency had decided to update its guidance on mask-wearing for fully vaccinated people because of “new science related to the Delta variant.”

That updated guidance for those who have been fully vaccinated includes: 

  • Wearing a mask indoors in public if you are in an area of substantial or high transmission to reduce the risk of being infected with the Delta variant and possibly spreading it to others. 
  • Choosing to wear a mask regardless of the level of transmission if you have a weakened immune system or if, because of your age or an underlying medical condition, you are at increased risk for severe disease, or if a member of your household has a weakened immune system, is at increased risk for severe disease, or is unvaccinated.

“In areas with substantial and high transmission, CDC recommends fully vaccinated people wear masks in public indoor settings to help prevent the spread of the Delta variant and protect others — this includes schools,” said Dr. Walensky. “CDC recommends that everyone in K to 12 schools wear a mask indoors, including teachers, staff, students and visitors regardless of vaccination status.” 

During the press conference, Dr. Walensky said that information on the Delta variant from several states and in other countries indicates that on rare occasions some fully vaccinated people who are infected with the Delta variant after they had already been vaccinated could potentially be contagious and spread COVID-19 to others. These are known as “vaccine breakthrough cases.”

“Vaccinated individuals continue to represent a very small amount of transmission occurring around the country. We continue to estimate that the risk of a breakthrough infection with symptoms upon exposure to the Delta variant is reduced by sevenfold. The reduction is twentyfold for hospitalizations and deaths,” said Dr. Walensky. 

However, she made it clear that the highest transmission rates are occurring in areas across the country where the vaccination rate is low and more likely among people who have not been vaccinated. 

“We still largely are in a pandemic of the unvaccinated — the vast majority of transmission, the vast majority of severe disease, hospitalization and death is almost exclusively happening among unvaccinated people, which is why we still very much want to double down on making sure people continue to get vaccinated,” said Dr. Walensky.

Dr. Stuart Campbell Ray, analytics professor of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, says that if more people get vaccinated, Americans will have more protection against COVID-19 and its variants. Until then, people should continue to wear masks in areas where the risk of transmission is high. 

“I think that if we take this guidance, believing that this will help us preserve some sense of normalcy, and protect some people — and that masks are not harmful and that they don't take away our liberties, but they are just a means to protect, just like a seatbelt, then maybe we can get folks on the same page that our first priority is safety,” said Dr. Ray. “The more we limit this virus, the more normal our lives can be going forward.” 

THE QUESTION

Is the CDC mandating mask-wearing throughout the United States? 

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

This is false.

No, the CDC is not mandating mask-wearing throughout the entire United States. They are, however, recommending that fully vaccinated people wear masks again in highly transmissible areas and around immunocompromised people. The agency is also encouraging unvaccinated people to get vaccinated against COVID-19. 

WHAT WE FOUND

CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky answered several questions from reporters during the press conference following the announcement of the agency’s updated mask guidelines on July 27. One of the reporters asked if the CDC is also planning on recommending vaccine mandates for the federal workforce, the military, in schools and for employers. 

Dr. Walensky told the reporter that the CDC has no jurisdiction over federal, state or local mandates. However, the CDC is encouraging communities across the country to do all that they can to get people vaccinated. 

“If businesses believe that it would be a mandate, then we encourage them to do so. We're encouraging any activities that would motivate further vaccination,” said Dr. Walensky. “Not all communities are going to be responsive to a mandate in the same way, so we're really encouraging communities to look to their own areas and see what would be most motivational to get vaccinated.” 

The updated CDC mask guidelines are as follows: 

  • If you are fully vaccinated, you can participate in many of the activities that you did before the pandemic.
  • To maximize protection from the Delta variant and prevent possibly spreading it to others, wear a mask indoors in public if you are in an area of substantial or high transmission.
  • Wearing a mask is most important if you have a weakened immune system or if, because of your age or an underlying medical condition, you are at increased risk for severe disease, or if someone in your household has a weakened immune system, is at increased risk for severe disease, or is unvaccinated. If this applies to you or your household, you might choose to wear a mask regardless of the level of transmission in your area.
  • You should continue to wear a mask where required by laws, rules, regulations, or local guidance.

Dr. Stuart Campbell Ray tells VERIFY that the guidance changing once again may be causing some people to be a bit skeptical. 

“I think that it is hard to hear changing guidance when you don't want to hear it, and there's a tendency to think that there's some ulterior motive or incompetence driving it. This situation with COVID has been changing since this virus appeared a year and a half ago, and so we're dealing with the changing landscape, both because the virus has changed and it's much more infectious now than it was before — and we keep learning about what works and what does not,” said Dr. Ray. 

IN CONCLUSION

The CDC, along with the World Health Organization (WHO), continues to recommend that people get vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to reduce the spread of the virus and its variants, as well as other mitigation methods, like wearing masks, social distancing and hand washing. 

“From what we know, the Delta variant is more transmissible than other variants,” WHO told VERIFY in a statement. “As long as there is community spread, governments should continue to emphasize proven public health and social measures, including masks.” 

More from VERIFY: Yes, the COVID-19 vaccines are effective against the Delta variant

The VERIFY team works to separate fact from fiction so that you can understand what is true and false. Please consider subscribing to our daily newsletter, text alerts and our YouTube channel. You can also follow us on Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and TikTok. Learn More »

Follow Us

Want something VERIFIED?

Text: 202-410-8808

Related Stories