The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may have changed its mask recommendations, but that doesn't mean the COVID-19 vaccines aren't working, but new science is showing that people who end up with breakthrough infections can spread the disease to others, Director Rochelle Walensky insisted Wednesday.
"Our vaccines are working just as we thought they would with the delta variant to prevent severe hospitalization and death," Walensky told CNN's "New Day." "We have been seeing that if you happen to have one of those breakthrough infections that you can actually now pass it to somebody else. We thought that was really important for people to know and understand because when people are out there vaccinated, thinking that even if they get mild illness they can't give it to someone else."
The CDC on Tuesday advised people to wear their masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status, in places where COVID is rapidly spreading, and Walensky told CNN the decision "weighed heavily" because it was "not a message America wants to hear."
Even with the new guidelines, the vast majority of the latest COVID cases are coming from its spread among people who have not been vaccinated against the disease, she said.
"If you look at (the) map, 80% of those counties that are red are from areas that have less than 40% of vaccinated people," said Walensky. "Our lowest areas of vaccinated people are producing 80% of those red counties. So it really important to understand that the vast majority is occurring in unvaccinated people, but we wanted people who are vaccinated to understood they could potentially pass this virus if they were one of those breakthrough infections."
Further, even vaccinated people have a higher chance of a breakthrough infection in parts of the country where there are several unvaccinated people if nobody is wearing a mask, said Walensky.
"For every 20 people, one or two of them could get a breakthrough infection," she added. "They may only get the mild disease, but we wanted them to know that they could bring that mild disease home. They could bring it to others ... we felt it was important that they know and understand parents, families of immunocompromised people, families at risk of severe disease that they should protect themselves so they don't bring the disease home to others."
Masks are also important for schoolchildren because only 30% of young people ages 12-17 have gotten their shots, and children younger than that are not eligible for vaccines, but the delta variation of COVID-19 is highly transmissible.
"Our goal right now is to make sure that children get back to school, to full, in-person learning and have a relatively normal school year," said Walensky. "The majority of people in our schools right now will be unvaccinated, just by virtue of the numbers, and we felt that it was really important to lean in and try and have our children back to school in the safest way possible and that would mean masking."
She acknowledged that data shows that children still tend to fare better than adults with COVID, even with the delta variant, but she thinks it's important to understand that "this is not a benign disease in kids compared to other diseases that our kids see. If you look at the mortality rate of covid, just this past year for children, it's more than twice the mortality rate we see in influenza in a given year."
School mask requirements could go away if schools end up having full vaccination records for teachers and students, but "we're far from there," said Walensky. "I want our children to be safe."
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