HARRISBURG, PA (WITF) — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now recommending vaccinated people wear a mask at public indoor spaces again in some instances. That’s to help curb the spread of the delta variant of the coronavirus, which is causing the latest surge in COVID-19 cases nationwide.
But at the moment, most Pennsylvanians who are fully vaccinated won’t have to think about putting a mask on again.
The health agency’s guidance out this week says vaccinated people only need to start wearing masks in areas that are seeing at least 50 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people per day. That’s what the CDC defines as “substantial” viral transmission. While areas from New York City to San Francisco are seeing cases rise at or above that level right now, Pennsylvania largely isn’t.
“There are very few parts … that have high levels of transmission right now, and that’s because we have a lot of vaccination,” infectious disease specialist Dr. John Goldman of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center told WITF’s Smart Talk Wednesday.
Just under 63 percent of Pennsylvanians 18 years or older were fully vaccinated as of Thursday. The state’s Department of Health has repeatedly touted that stat, which is higher than it is in most states. But if you look at the whole group of people who are eligible for a shot, those who are 12 and older, 60.3 percent are fully vaccinated according to the agency’s data averages.
That’s still better than the U.S. average of 57.7 percent, but not as good as neighboring New York or New Jersey, where slightly more eligible people are fully vaccinated.
However, metro areas in both of those states are seeing a sharp enough rise in cases to warrant the return of masking at public indoor spaces. By contrast, the CDC says there are only six mostly rural counties in Pennsylvania where masking would need to happen right now: Adams, Crawford, Cameron, Lawrence, Northampton and Wyoming.
WLVR reports Northampton County is set to host the Musikfest music festival at the beginning of next month, despite its current transmission rate.
Most other counties have either low or moderate transmission rates, which means the CDC considers it safe for anyone who’s fully vaccinated to keep going maskless. But experts like Goldman say because the vaccines don’t completely eliminate all risk of getting mildly sick with COVID-19, vaccinated people should mask up if they go to a high-spread area.
Unvaccinated people, meanwhile, continue to face a different reality: the CDC is still recommending those people wear masks and follow social distancing rules at places like restaurants and at even small gatherings. Goldman said those people continue to face the most risk of being hospitalized or dying as the pandemic drags on.
“Personally, the people that we have in the hospital right now are universally unvaccinated,” he said. “You see people that are really sick [and] people that are at risk of dying, and it’s tragic because this is a preventable disease.”
CDC data shows as of this month, 97 percent of people in the U.S. who are hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated.
Pa.’s Department of Health said this week it’s not planning to reinstate a statewide mask mandate. Local governments and businesses, though, can impose one if they choose. The agency also said anyone working or visiting a school environment, vaccinated or not, should follow the CDC’s new guidance and wear masks once classes resume.
In a statement, the agency said vaccines remain the best way to combat the spread of coronavirus variants.
“Data has shown that there is a correlation between increased vaccination rates and lower COVID-19 case counts. We cannot stress enough the importance of eligible Pennsylvanians getting vaccinated to stop the spread of COVID-19,” DOH spokesperson Maggi Barton said.