NIH Chief: New Mask Guidance Protects Vulnerable, Unvaccinated

Carolyn Crist

August 03, 2021

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

The latest national mask guidance is meant to protect unvaccinated and vulnerable people, Francis Collins, MD, the director of the National Institutes of Health, said on Sunday.

The CDC guidelines encourage everyone — including vaccinated people — to wear masks in indoor public places where COVID-19 transmission is high.

"It's mostly about protecting the unvaccinated. That's where the real serious risks of illness are," Collins said on CNN's "State of the Union."

Based on an outbreak around Cape Cod, researchers saw that vaccinated people can carry the coronavirus in their nose and throat. In some cases, the viral load is as high in vaccinated people as it is in unvaccinated people.

"They do seem to have high enough levels of virus that they might be contagious," Collins said. "Hence the reason, if you're in a community where the virus is spreading, which is about 75% of counties right now, it is prudent to put on a mask, even if you're vaccinated, just in case you might be somebody who's spreading it."

Donning a mask in public, indoor spaces can prevent the spread of the contagious Delta variant to children under 12 who aren't yet eligible to get vaccinated, people with compromised immune systems and unvaccinated people, Collins added.

"It's just good common sense," he said. "I know it has confused everybody because it's a change in direction."

For a gathering of fully vaccinated people, Collins said, mask guidance should depend on the location and size of the group. Private gatherings or small groups of less than 10 people who are fully vaccinated don't need to wear masks, he said, but a crowd of 100 people could warrant more caution.

"Maybe there's some immunocompromised people there who, though they're vaccinated, are not actually fully protected," he said. "Then the dynamic changes a little bit. There will be some need for common sense there."

Due to the spread of the Delta variant, cases have increased about fourfold in the past few weeks, Collins said. More than 100,000 new cases have been reported on several days during the past week, and major outbreaks have been reported in areas with low vaccination rates, particularly certain parts of Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana and Missouri.

"So if anybody's listening who has been on the fence, it's a tipping point now," Collins said. "Let's really try to get everybody out there and start to be part of the winning team to roll up your sleeves."

Sources

CDC: "When You've Been Fully Vaccinated, updated July 27, 2021."

CNN: "State of the Union transcript, August 1, 2021."

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