CDC: Color-coded map shows where Americans need to wear masks again, and where you can go maskless, outside of schools

·3 min read
a map of the US from the CDC showing which counties have the highest transmission rates
People in orange and red counties should wear masks indoors in public, the CDC said Tuesday. CDC Covid Data Tracker

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now recommending that fully vaccinated people put their masks back on when indoors in public, at least in the areas of the US where COVID-19 is spreading fastest.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said Tuesday that "the Delta variant behaves uniquely differently" compared with other versions of the virus and that vaccinated people "may be contagious and spread the virus to others."

But the CDC isn't recommending that everyone mask up again.

The agency's new guidance is limited to places where COVID-19 transmission is deemed "substantial" or "high," meaning there are either more than 50 cases per 100,000 people in the area, over a seven-day period, or the COVID-19 test positivity rate is higher than 5%.

The one glaring exception to that rule is in K-12 schools nationwide, where the CDC is now recommending everyone mask up to protect kids and teachers.

The main reason for the change in the CDC guidance is that, in areas where a lot of virus is circulating, the risk of getting infected, even for vaccinated people, is now very high. And while vaccination helps protect people from heading to the hospital or, eventually, dying from the disease, it is not a perfect shield against COVID-19. Vaccinated people can get sick and prolong the pandemic, too, by spreading the virus.

"That's why we are saying, in areas of substantial or high transmission, even if you are vaccinated, that we believe it's important to wear a mask in those settings," Walensky added.

"There are some people who are not able to be fully vaccinated, like children, and some people who are not able to be fully protected even though they are vaccinated, like immunocompromised people. So part of the reason for this guidance is to make sure that we can protect those [people]."

Mask guidelines, broken down by county

To find out whether you're in a place where transmission is substantial or high, you can use the CDC's COVID Data Tracker, which drills down to the county level.

Much of the US is seeing "substantial" (orange) or "high" (red) rates of transmission, where masks are now advised indoors. In the few pockets of "moderate" (yellow) and "low" (blue) zones, fully vaccinated people can go mask-free, according to the CDC.

As an example, here's what it looks like if you search "Dallas County, Texas," on the CDC's map:

a map of texas color coded in  blue, yellow, orange, and red, showing where COVID transmission is highest
The CDC's new guidance says transmission is high enough in Dallas County to warrant masks indoors in public. CDC Covid Data Tracker

Transmission is high in Dallas County, meaning the CDC recommends that people there wear masks indoors in public.

Only three US states are entirely in red - Florida, Arkansas, Louisiana - but Missouri and Mississippi are almost there, with only a few scarce orange, yellow, and blue counties.

Even in New York City, where more than 65% of adults are now fully vaccinated, transmission is in the red or orange zone in all five boroughs.

"It is not a welcome piece of news that masking is going to be a part of people's lives who have already been vaccinated," Walensky said, stressing that medical experts, when shown the data on Delta infections in the US, "have universally said that this required action."

This "could have been avoided with higher vaccination coverage," she added.

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