Whether vaccinated people should wear masks is a question for many, including major health agencies. 

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For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO and CDC websites.

If you’re vaccinated against COVID-19, you’re safe to forego the mask, right? It depends. The World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have different recommendations for vaccinated individuals for different reasons. The conflicting guidance comes as the highly contagious delta variant continues to dominate new cases around the world — including in the US, where it’s responsible for half of all cases in many parts of the country, President Joe Biden said during a briefing on Tuesday. 

In June, WHO officials repeated their longstanding recommendation that everyone should wear masks to stem the spread of the virus. Meanwhile, the CDC continues to uphold its guidance that fully vaccinated Americans no longer need to wear masks indoors or maintain social distancing. On Sunday, White House Chief Medical Adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci said that those who’ve had two doses of the vaccine should still “go the extra step” to wear a mask when traveling to places with low vaccination rates. 

Both the WHO and CDC agree that people who aren’t vaccinated should continue to wear face masks. But given the high rate of protection that vaccinated people have against the delta variant and other COVID strains, why are some medical experts in conflict about a barrier over your nose and mouth? Does the dispute come down to legal liability, politics or science? We continue to update this story.

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Why are experts at odds over masks for vaccinated people?

A few days after the WHO recommended that people who received the COVID-19 vaccine should continue wearing a face mask, Fauci explained why the advice differs from the CDC’s. “There’s a reason for that,” he said in a virtual White House press briefing. “The WHO is responsible for the planet as a whole. It’s different in the world in general from here in the United States.”

So, while the WHO is monitoring the pandemic around the world, with a majority of people unvaccinated, the CDC is commenting on the situation in the US, where the vaccines have been shown to work quite effectively against hospitalization from the delta variant. Only 11.6% of the global population is fully vaccinated, according to vaccine tracker site Our World in Data. The US nearly quadruples that number: 47.7% of Americans are considered fully vaccinated as of July 4, according to the Mayo Clinic. 

For Fauci and the CDC, the urgency is less about wearing a face mask after vaccination and more about getting a greater number of Americans vaccinated in the first place. On July 4, Fauci said that 99.2% of COVID-related deaths last month involved unvaccinated people. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci used data in this slide to explain why differences in global and US vaccination rates resulted in two distinct mask-wearing recommendations.

PBS/Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
WHO guidance: Fully vaccinated should still wear masks

Wearing a mask consistently continues to be important, even for people who are vaccinated, a WHO official said during a press briefing in late June. “People cannot feel safe just because they had the two doses. They still need to protect themselves.”

Wearing masks in public places is essential to help people from inhaling particles that will cause them to become sick, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, an American infectious disease epidemiologist, said during that same briefing.

While the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are showing robust protection against variants, “breakthrough” infections may still sporadically occur. In an early case in June, a fully vaccinated woman in Napa, California, died from COVID-19. She was over 65 and was reported to have underlying medical conditions.


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CDC guidance: Fully vaccinated can go maskless

The CDC’s current guidance on mask wearing remains the same for fully vaccinated people. The guidelines say those who are fully vaccinated can “resume activities without wearing masks or physically distancing” except where required, such as in planes and businesses. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky stuck to that guidance on NBC’s Today show on June 30, saying fully vaccinated people are protected from the delta variant.

The CDC warned CNN that there’s still a small chance fully vaccinated people can become infected with the new variant if they’re exposed. We’ve asked the CDC for comment.

Why is the coronavirus delta variant serious?

The delta variant is the latest of new coronavirus variants and is the most contagious of the variants identified so far, according to the WHO. The delta variant has been identified in 85 countries so far and is spreading among the unvaccinated population, the organization said during the press conference.

“The delta variant is currently the greatest threat in the US to our attempt to eliminate COVID-19,” Fauci said during a White House press briefing on June 22.

Some countries are returning to lockdowns to curb the spread.

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Will there be more mask mandates or stricter restrictions?

Some countries have already begun tightening COVID-19 restrictions. For instance, four cities across Australia have returned to lockdown, including Sydney’s state of New South Wales. In the US, Los Angeles County is strongly recommending face masks indoors, regardless of whether someone has been vaccinated, though masks aren’t required in most places. Some countries within Africa and Asia — for instance, South Africa and Malaysia — have also moved into lockdown due to the delta variant spreading.

Some places never loosened mask mandates, such as airports and airlines. In the US, other public transportation facilities require masks, such as buses and trains.

For more information, here’s what you need to know about “long COVID” and how it’s treated. Also, read up on these COVID-19 vaccine side effects and important dos and don’ts for getting your COVID-19 vaccine.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.

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