Jurisdictions in the Baltimore area aren’t yet planning to modify masking rules in response to fresh guidance released Tuesday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommended that fully vaccinated people wear masks indoors under certain circumstances.
The announcement represented a reversal for the federal agency, which previously stated that those at least two weeks out from vaccination could forgo face masks in most public places.
Now, the CDC is recommending indoor masking in areas with “substantial or high transmission,” and for people with weakened immune systems, or who live with an unvaccinated or immunocompromised person.
Over the past few weeks, the number of daily COVID-19 cases has doubled in Maryland, but the state’s case rate per 100,000 people — 4 — remains better than in all but four other states. The state’s seven-day average testing positivity rate is 2.31%, still below a 5% threshold recommended by the World Health Organization for imposing restrictions.
About 58.5% of the state population is fully vaccinated, but the numbers vary sharply by jurisdiction. The most vaccinated county — Howard — has fully vaccinated 67.7% of its population, compared with 37.1% in Somerset, the state’s least vaccinated county.
The CDC made its announcement in part because recent studies have determined that fully vaccinated people, while largely protected against serious COVID-19 cases, and consequences such as hospitalization and death, can carry large amounts of the variant virus in their noses and throats. That indicates that vaccinated people could spread the virus to others.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, dropped the state’s indoor mask mandate May 15, and most counties in the state followed suit. Baltimore City was a holdout, but ended the mandate July 1, when Maryland’s state of emergency lapsed.
Dr. Letitia Dzirasa, the Baltimore City health commissioner, said another mask mandate may be an option if case rates in the city keep rising.
”But we hope that the recent increase in cases and the presence of the delta variant in Maryland spurs unvaccinated Baltimore City residents to seek the information they need from a trusted medical professional,” Dzirasa said. “And then to get vaccinated as soon as possible.”
But no other jurisdictions in the Baltimore area signaled Tuesday that they planned to change their masking rules. Masks still are required aboard U.S. public transportation because of a federal mandate.
The CDC also recommended Tuesday that masks be worn universally in schools, rather than only by unvaccinated students and staff. Children under 12 aren’t yet approved for vaccination in the United States, although vaccine-maker Pfizer/BioNTech has said it hopes to apply for emergency authorization for children 5 to 11 years old.
At least one jurisdiction in the Baltimore area — Baltimore City — already plans to require masks in schools this fall regardless of individuals’ vaccination status. But others, such as Harford and Carroll counties, are planning to leave the choice up to parents. Others still haven’t made up their minds.
The Howard County school board, for instance, plans to discuss the matter at a meeting Aug. 12.
Baltimore County school officials have recommended that unvaccinated students and staff mask up, but the rules could evolve before school is back in session, said Charles Herndon, spokesman for the system.
“We have a long way to go before school opens in the fall,” Herndon said. “It is difficult to know on July 27th what the landscape will look like on August 30.”
Cheryl Bost, president of the state’s largest teachers union, said the union supports the “growing consensus on required masking this fall,” as reflected by the new CDC guidance.
“To protect the safety of our students and educators, we encourage districts to apply a layered approach that may combine masking, social distancing, frequent testing, increased access to vaccines, and upgrades to ventilation systems,” Bost said.
Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said students age 12 and older should get vaccinated now, ahead of the fall semester, since it takes a few weeks to complete the Pfizer/BioNTech two-dose series.
For children too young to get vaccinated, schools can be points of high transmissibility, Rivers said. And COVID-19 can be harder to detect in children since the disease tends to manifest in mild forms and can be easy to confuse with flus and common colds.
”Kids need to be back in schools full time, so that means wearing masks, having good ventilation and social distancing to the extent it’s possible,” she said. “Maybe also skipping assemblies, skipping crowding in the lobbies and those sorts of things.”
Baltimore Sun Media reporters Liz Bowie, Erin Hardy, Clara Longo de Freitas and Hallie Miller contributed to this article.