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Masking Guidelines: Understanding the CDC and the WHO

July 1, 2021

Masking  has been a topic of debate -- and source of confusion -- throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Faced with changing recommendations, different rules in different countries, states, and even cities or counties, and pervasive misinformation about the risks and benefits of masking, many people are understandably frustrated and fatigued by mask discussion. Unfortunately for them, the debate around masking is far from settled, as the CDC and WHO are currently promoting very different mask recommendations. In this post we’ll take a look at those recommendations, explain the contexts in which they were made, and consider the longer-term future of masking.

The CDC guidance: flexible, with local control.

The CDC updated its guidelines in May to incorporate best practices for the growing number of fully vaccinated Americans. Broadly, the new guidelines gave vaccinated people the go-ahead to “resume activities without wearing a mask or physically distancing, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws . . . including local business and workplace guidance.” This was done under the general rationale that vaccinated individuals are unlikely to contract COVID-19, unlikely to spread it to unvaccinated individuals, and the vaccines themselves showed early promise in terms of protecting against variants.

On Wednesday, CDC director Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky reaffirmed these guidelines, but called attention to the opportunistic nature of COVID-19, particularly the delta variant, suggesting that local-level policies should largely define the path forward for masking.

The WHO guidance: global best practices.

In contrast with the American CDC, the World Health Organization continues to recommend mask-wearing at nearly all times even for fully vaccinated individuals as part of a safety regimen that includes physical distancing, avoiding large gatherings, and other practices common during the height of the global pandemic. 

While some of this recommendation likely comes from a simple abundance of caution, it’s critical to note that the WHO is making recommendations for the entire world rather than just one nation. As such, their recommendations must take into account radically different vaccination rates (and vaccine access) in different parts of the world, the relative prevalence of aggressive COVID-19 strains like the delta variant, and other highly variable circumstances arising from trying to find a set of best practices that is effective in virtually any circumstances.

What does the future hold?

Looking at the above, it’s tempting to ask which of these approaches is “right,” but that line of reasoning isn’t necessarily productive. If we’ve learned nothing else in the past year and a half, we’ve certainly learned that our pandemic response must continually evolve in response to the best, latest information available. 

Right now, the CDC is relying on local governments and businesses to call for greater precautions on an as-needed basis, which is an approach informed by US vaccination rates, realistic observations around the cultural implications of mask-wearing (not to mention compliance rates), and the fact that, as of this writing, the delta variant still only accounts for 25% of new COVID-19 cases nationwide. Any of this is subject to change, however, and it’s important to allow for the possibility that we may need to pivot toward a response that’s more in line with the WHO’s one-size-fits-all response if the circumstances warrant.

And that's the final piece: how will we know if or when we need to change course? As always, information is the key to understanding the proper scope and scale of response. Further, because the CDC makes a point of allowing businesses to set their own standards for masking, distancing, and the like, it’s essential that they do their part to stay informed. Offering quick, easy COVID-19 testing remains an essential tool for protecting workers and their families, and that is precisely what we offer here at Wellstand.

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