Masks are worn as hand sanitizer is distributed at Corner Market on Fortification Street in Jackson, Miss., Wednesday, April 8, 2020. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued updated guidance on Tuesday, saying that people vaccinated against COVID-19 should wear masks in public indoor spaces in areas experiencing surging caseloads.

The agency also recommended that all teachers, staff, students and visitors mask up in schools, regardless of their vaccination status and the level of transmission in their community.  

These new recommendations are a direct response to the surge in infections seen across the country from the highly contagious Delta variant. 

“The Delta variant is showing every day its willingness to outsmart us,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, said.

During a news briefing on Tuesday, CDC officials cited new scientific evidence that shows vaccinated people can become infected with Delta and transmit it to others. Chinese researchers recently found that people infected with Delta had over 1,000 times more virus in their bodies than people who had been infected by the original strain of COVID-19.

 “This new science is worrisome and unfortunately warrants an update to our recommendation,” Walensky said.

The new masking recommendations are certain to be unwelcome news to the vaccinated, many who have relished the last few months of being able to go out in public unmasked.

 “One of the challenges is that everybody’s tired of COVID, everybody’s tired of masks, everybody’s tired of not being able to do what they want to,” State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said on Monday. “And that’s understandable, because I’m all in there with you. But we must understand that there are consequences for us not acknowledging the real risks.”

The CDC recommendation for masking in schools comes just one day after The Mississippi Association of Educators (MAE), the state’s teachers union, called on Gov. Tate Reeves to mandate masks in schools in the fall.

Reeves doubled down on his opposition to COVID-19 related mandates Monday afternoon.

“Governor Reeves has no intention of requiring students and staff to wear masks when they’re in school this fall,” Bailey Martin, a spokesperson for Reeves, said. 

Whether Mississippi school districts will follow the CDC guidance is yet to be seen. Most schools are set to begin the new school year in early to mid-August. Mississippi Department of Health guidance currently calls for the unvaccinated to wear masks while inside schools, and many districts across the state are starting the school year with masks being optional for all. 

Noting that Mississippi school districts have “a lot more autonomy than other states,” Dobbs acknowledged this patchwork reality during a MAE livestream on Monday.

“We’re going to encourage and try to get schools to follow our recommendations, but, you know, we don’t really have the authority to dictate how they operate,” Dobbs said. “So that’s going to be something that’s going to have to be really hashed out at the local level.”

During that same event, Dobbs also noted that most kids are going to go into the school year vulnerable to COVID-19 and said that calls for universal masking in schools “make sense.”

Dobbs has said that he doesn’t expect the virus to circulate much in classrooms themselves if masking and distancing recommendations are followed. He anticipates the bulk of circulation to happen in high traffic areas where masks will often be removed, like cafeterias, locker rooms and band halls. 

Though Mississippi’s recent caseload looks similar to those seen one year ago, the Delta variant has changed the situation significantly. Much younger Mississippians are being hospitalized with Delta infections, whereas with the original strain of COVID-19, most hospitalizations occurred with patients over 50 years old. Currently, 43% of people hospitalized for COVID-19 in Mississippi are under 50. One year ago that number was 19%. 

Vaccination remains the best protection against contracting the Delta variant. The vaccines are nearly as effective against the Delta variant as the original strain, greatly minimizing the chance of infection and nearly eliminating the risks of developing a serious illness. Studies suggest, however, that being fully vaccinated is the only adequate protection against the Delta variant, as a single shot of either of the two-dose mRNA vaccines provides only weak protection against infection.

Though Mississippi is no longer last last in the nation for the share of its population that has been vaccinated, it still lags behind 48 other states. Only 34% of Mississippians have been fully vaccinated, according to CDC data.

On Tuesday, MSDH reported 1,291 new cases and 15 deaths. This is the fifth consecutive day Mississippi has reported more than 1,000 new cases. 

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Will Stribling covered healthcare and breaking news for Mississippi Today.