The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention altered its guidance around mask-wearing Tuesday, recommending that people vaccinated against COVID-19 who live in “areas of high transmission” should cover their faces in indoor public places.
That includes schools, where all teachers, staff, students and visitors are recommended to wear masks regardless of vaccination status.
Unvaccinated people are encouraged to get vaccinated and to wear masks until they do.
For now at least, none of Connecticut’s eight counties fit the CDC’s definition of “high” or “substantial” COVID-19 transmission, though some will almost certainly get there soon. Connecticut has seen a sharp increase in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in recent weeks and, as of Tuesday, had recorded a seven-day positivity rate of 2.23%, highest in a seven-day period since early May.
Here is what the CDC’s new guidance might mean for Connecticut.
Will Connecticut adopt the CDC’s guidance?
Connecticut has typically — though not always — followed the CDC’s lead on COVID-related matters, and Gov. Ned Lamont said Tuesday that he likely do so in this case as well.
That could mean a requirement that vaccinated people in the state return to wearing masks indoors — either now or in the near future when parts of the state hit the CDC’s definition of “high” or “substantial” transmission.
Still, Lamont said “local circumstances” could play a role as well.
“I’ve had towns with 99% of the people vaccinated with virtually zero community spread, and I have other communities that are very different,” the governor said Tuesday, hours before the CDC officially announced its recommendations. “There may be some local discretion there.”
Connecticut had a strict mask mandate earlier in the pandemic but relaxed its rules dramatically when cases began to slow this past spring. Currently, vaccinated people are not required to wear masks except in select indoor settings such as health care facilities and public transit.
Lamont said he will consult with other top officials before making any final decisions on new restrictions.
“I’ve got to work with the legislature,” Lamont said. “My emergency powers go until Sept. 30, so it’s probably a good thing to work with them. … Even if I wanted to do something more strict like a mandate, it only goes to the end of September. That’s why I think it’s time now to start involving the legislature to see where their head is at on this.”
Does Connecticut qualify as an ‘area of high transmission?’
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC’s director, said the agency’s new guidance is geared specifically toward areas classified as having “substantial” or “high” levels of transmission, as measured by its rate of new cases over the previous week.
As of Tuesday, each of Connecticut’s eight counties was designated as having only “moderate” transmission, one level below “substantial,” meaning the state doesn’t technically fall under the new guidance.
That could change in the coming days and weeks, however, as Connecticut’s numbers continue to increase. Hartford County, for example, has recorded 49 cases per 100,000 residents over the past week, just shy of the threshold — 50 weekly cases per 100,000 residents — necessary to be classified as having “substantial” transmission.
New London County also fell just shy of the threshold as of Tuesday, while New Haven, Fairfield and Middlesex Counties were not far off either.
Why should vaccinated people have to wear masks?
Vaccinated people face far less risk from COVID-19 than unvaccinated people, particularly when it comes to severe illness and death. Hospital officials say the vast majority of patients currently hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated.
Still, breakthrough cases remain possible, especially with the highly contagious delta variant, which currently accounts for more than two-thirds of Connecticut’s cases. Plus, vaccinated people who catch COVID-19 may pass it on to unvaccinated people or to those with compromised immune systems.
Officials hope that requiring masks in certain settings will slow the spread of COVID-19, thereby leaving everyone at less risk.
“In those rare cases that we have breakthrough infections, we felt it was important for people to understand that they have the potential to transmit the virus to others,” Walensky said.
What does this mean for schools this fall?
If Connecticut adopts the CDC’s recommendations, everyone in K-12 schools will be required to wear masks, regardless of vaccination status.
The CDC’s announcement Tuesday updated previous guidance, issued earlier this month, recommending that only people who have not been vaccinated were required to wear masks in schools.
The issue of whether children should be required to wear masks at school this fall has become controversial in Connecticut, with some parents arguing that masks are unnecessary for children given that they are generally less vulnerable to severe complications from the disease.
Others, including many physicians, argue that since all children under the age of 12 are unvaccinated, they remain vulnerable to the virus — and to spreading it to other unvaccinated individuals.
What do local experts say?
As Connecticut’s COVID-19 numbers have increased in recent weeks, many local physicians and infectious disease experts have said they continue to wear masks indoors.
“Personally, I do wear a mask when I’m in a setting unfamiliar to me,” Dr. Ajay Kumar, chief clinical officer at Hartford HealthCare, said last week. “I do continue to take precautions with social distancing and washing and all those thing. I have not gotten relaxed on that.”
Dr. Marwan Haddad, who chairs Community Health Center’s COVID-19 advisory group, said Tuesday he has resumed wearing masks in more settings and recommends other vaccinated people do so as well.
“I had become a little bit more lax and comfortable at not wearing a mask indoors, and then with the recent rise in the delta variant I’ve been making sure I always have a mask on me,” he said. “And when I feel the circulation was not good or there were too many people in the place I would wear the mask.”
Courant staff writer Christopher Keating contributed to this report.
Alex Putterman can be reached at email@example.com.