CDC reverses course on mask recommendations

Vaccinated people should still wear face coverings while indoors, in places such as K-12 schools in areas with substantial or high coronavirus transmission rates, according to new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines issued Tuesday.

The new guidance could change how trustees and superintendents write school reopening policies. It also marks a major reversal from the public health agency, as the spread of the coronavirus delta variant sparks new health concerns nationwide. On July 9, CDC back-to-school guidelines stated that masks should be worn by all individuals, age 2 and older, who are not fully vaccinated.

The changeup accompanies surging coronavirus case numbers in Idaho, where the most recent weekly increase mirrors numbers from May. Meanwhile, limited lab capacity in Idaho means the state’s information on the spread of the delta variant is incomplete.

If Idaho were to follow the new CDC guidance, which is not required, people in 28 counties would be required to mask while indoors. Here’s a break down of countywide risk levels across Idaho, according to the CDC’s nationwide tracker:

  • High: Ada, Bear Lake, Bingham, Custer, Fremont, Idaho, Kootenai, Latah, Madison, Minidoka, Nez Perce, Oneida, Power, Shoshone, Twin Falls, Valley
  • Substantial: Bannock, Blaine County, Boise, Bonneville, Canyon, Cassia, Elmore, Franklin, Gem, Jefferson, Lemhi, Lewis
  • Moderate: Adams, Benewah, Bonner, Boundary, Caribou, Clearwater, Gooding, Jerome, Lincoln, Owyhee, Payette, Teton, Washington
  • Low: Butte, Camas, Clark

In the CDC’s data, “substantial” coronavirus spread means there have been 50-100 cases per 100,000 population over a seven-day period. “High” spread means there have been over 100 cases per 100,000 population in that time. The CDC’s calculation for county risk levels might differ from local health districts, who calculate their data differently to accommodate for things like population size.

Transmission of COVID-19 is still highest in places with low vaccination rates and among people who are unvaccinated, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said during a briefing Tuesday afternoon.

Increased spread and an approaching school year have heightened concerns in Idaho. On Tuesday morning, Saint Alphonsus Hospital uploaded a video to Twitter featuring Chief Clinical Officer Steven Nemerson, urging public school leaders to look into mask requirements. Nemerson outlined low vaccination rates among young people and his concerns that children under 12 years old cannot be vaccinated.

On Tuesday afternoon, Central District Health released a statement in support of the new CDC guidance.

Most of Idaho’s school districts lifted their mask mandates over the spring and summer.

Boise School District trustees approved their 2021-22 pandemic plan on July 12, which included making masks optional for vaccinated students, staff members and visitors. Those who are unvaccinated are “encouraged” to wear a mask, but it is not required. Boise Public Affairs Administrator Dan Hollar said district leadership will be meeting with local healthcare partners before to see how the new guidance will potentially affect their pandemic response plan.

West Ada and Caldwell both dropped their mask requirements in early June. Idaho Falls, Nampa and Pocatello-Chubbuck followed suit in May. West Ada’s new pandemic operational plan gives Superintendent Derek Bub the authority to implement a mask requirement when needed. West Ada spokesperson Char Jackson told EdNews on Tuesday that the CDC’s new guidance will not be affecting the existing pandemic operation plan.

Mask mandates by school districts have been a hotly contested issue. Over 100 West Ada parents protesting the district’s mask mandate attended the May board meeting, and many left unhappy when trustees voted to keep masks mandatory for the final two weeks of the school year.

The meeting room was at full capacity during the May 11 West Ada trustees’ meeting. Nik Streng/Idaho EdNews

On Wednesday afternoon, Bub released a statement to district patrons, assuring them that the district’s policy on mask wearing has not changed.

“If a change is necessary, because of new guidance or data, we will be sure to make such changes public,” Bub wrote.

Nampa Board Chair Mandy Simpson abruptly adjourned a special meeting days later, when attendees began jeering commenters supporting the district’s mask mandate.

Nampa has not discussed reinstating the mask mandate, said communications director Kathleen Tuck said.

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