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CDC reverses course on indoor masks for parts of U.S., LI among these

People walk out of a store in Brooklyn

People walk out of a store in Brooklyn requesting customers to wear masks on July 26, Credit: Getty Images/Spencer Platt

This story was reported by Matthew Chayes, Matt Clark, Lisa Colangelo, Scott Eidler, Bart Jones, Tory Parrish and The Associated Press. It was written by AP and Jones.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reversed course Tuesday on some masking guidelines, recommending that even vaccinated people return to wearing masks indoors in parts of the United States where the coronavirus is surging.

According to a CDC map of such places, Long Island and parts of New York City are considered areas with "substantial transmission" and subject to the new guidance.

Citing new information about the ability of the delta variant to spread among vaccinated people, the CDC also recommended indoor masks for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.

The new guidance follows recent decisions in Los Angeles and St. Louis to revert to indoor mask mandates amid a spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations that have been especially bad in the South. The country is averaging more than 57,000 cases a day and 24,000 COVID-19 hospitalizations.

Most new infections in the United States continue to be among unvaccinated people. But "breakthrough" infections, which generally cause milder illness, can occur in vaccinated people. When earlier strains of the virus predominated, infected vaccinated people were found to have low levels of virus and were deemed unlikely to spread the virus much, said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, CDC director.

But with the delta variant, the level of virus in infected vaccinated people is "indistinguishable" from the level of virus in the noses and throats of unvaccinated people, Walensky said.

The data emerged over the last couple of days from 100 samples. It is unpublished, and the CDC has not released it. But "it is concerning enough that we feel like we have to act," Walensky said.

Vaccinated people "have the potential to spread that virus to others," she said.

Vaccinations considered for federal workers

In other developments, President Joe Biden said his administration was considering requiring all federal workers to get vaccinated. His comments came a day after the Department of Veterans Affairs became the first federal agency to require its health care workers receive the vaccine.

Biden dismissed concerns that the new masking guidance from the CDC could invite confusion, saying Americans who remain unvaccinated are the ones who are "sowing enormous confusion."

"The more we learn about this virus and the delta variation, the more we have to be worried and concerned. And there’s only one thing we know for sure — if those other 100 million people got vaccinated, we’d be in a very different world," he said.

The White House quickly pivoted on its own masking guidance, asking all staff and reporters to wear masks indoors because the latest CDC data shows that Washington faces a substantial level of coronavirus transmission.

Although CDC guidance still called for wearing masks in crowded indoor settings, like buses, planes, hospitals, prisons and homeless shelters, the agency had said fully vaccinated people did not need to wear masks in other indoor settings, including summer camps and schools.

For months COVID cases, deaths and hospitalizations were falling steadily, but those trends began to change at the beginning of the summer as the delta variant, a mutated and more transmissible version of the virus, began to spread widely, especially in areas with lower vaccination rates.

Honor system for mask wearing

Some public health experts said they thought the earlier CDC decision was based on good science, which indicated that the risk of vaccinated people spreading the virus was relatively low and that the risk of them catching the virus and becoming extremely ill was even lower.

But those experts also were critical, noting Americans did not have to document their vaccination status, which created an honor system. Unvaccinated people who did not want to wear masks in the first place saw it as an opportunity to do what they wanted, they said.

"I certainly agree with the recommendation that people should be wearing masks inside as rates go up. And as delta is spreading, I don’t think that masks are such a hardship," said Dr. Bruce Farber, chief public health and epidemiology officer at Northwell Health and chief of infectious diseases at North Shore University Hospital and Long Island Jewish Medical Center.

But he questioned the CDC’s guidelines that people should only wear masks in selected states based on high transmission and prevalence of COVID-19.

"I think it's too difficult and confusing for people to keep track of what exactly that's going to mean," Farber said. "Personally, I think that everybody should be wearing masks inside and it shouldn't be that it's done in July in New York, but not in August in New York."

"As cases rise due to the circulation of a more contagious strain of SARS-CoV-2, it makes sense that we all take extra precautions when indoors in public," said Dr. Gregson Pigott, Suffolk County health commissioner, in a statement Tuesday night. "The delta variant affects the unvaccinated and, to a much lesser extent the vaccinated, as well. Our recommendation continues to be that all who are eligible should get vaccinated as quickly as possible for protection against delta and other circulating variants of SARS-CoV-2."

In a statement late Tuesday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said: "New Yorkers beat back COVID before — going from the highest positivity rate on the globe to one of the lowest …-and that's exactly what we'll keep doing in this next phase of the pandemic. We are reviewing the CDC's new recommendations closely in consultation with federal and state health experts."

Long Island grocers King Kullen and Stew Leonard's said they'd continue with their current mask rules.

Since Cuomo lifted the mask mandate in May, King Kullen has required customers who are not fully vaccinated to wear masks but it is a "self-policing" rule, King Kullen spokesman Lloyd Singer said Tuesday. Employees must show proof of vaccination or wear a mask, he said.

Stew Leonard’s seven stores, including the two on Long Island, had advised mask wearing in the store and will now put signs up asking customers to follow the CDC's latest recommendations, said Stew Leonard Jr., president of the Norwalk, Connecticut-based chain. But at this point, no one will be turned away for not complying, he said.

"You know, I’m not going to kick them out of the store or tell them not to shop. It’s not a law. It’s a recommendation," Leonard said

Indicators rise on Long Island

Meanwhile, COVID-19 indicators continued to rise on Long Island.

COVID-19 hospitalizations exceeded those reported one year ago for the fourth day in a row Monday on Long Island, according to state data. There were 113 patients admitted Monday compared with 87 patients on July 26, 2020, according to state data.

The number of Long Island hospitalizations has doubled in less than two weeks, rising from 53 on July 15.

Efforts to increase vaccinations continued on Long Island.

Nassau County began its "student vaccination days" series on Tuesday at the Kennedy Park pod in Hempstead. County officials said there was a steady stream of walk-in appointments, which are being administered in partnership with Northwell Health. The event is open to students 12 and older and students can also sign up for appointments online.

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said in a statement, "To continue to defeat this pandemic, we need as many people as possible to roll up their sleeves — especially young people."

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