Updated at 7:30 p.m.: Revised throughout to include reactions from local health experts.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed course on its masking guidelines Tuesday, recommending face coverings even for vaccinated people in parts of the country where coronavirus is surging.
North Texas is one of those places. Last Monday, Dallas and Tarrant counties reported their highest single-day totals since February. According to CDC data for last week, Dallas, Tarrant and Denton counties have high levels of community transmission. Collin County has substantial community transmission.
This means all four counties fall under the new CDC guidelines stating that fully vaccinated residents should wear a mask indoors in public — a change from the relaxed guidance announced in May.
The CDC also recommended indoor masks for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to schools, regardless of vaccination status.
The updated guidelines didn’t surprise local health experts.
“It’s not so much reversing course as much as it’s adapting to the state of the pandemic, which is constantly in flux,” said Dr. Spencer Fox, associate director of the UT COVID-19 Modeling Consortium.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC’s director, said Monday that new data suggests viral loads — the amount of virus in an infected person — from the delta variant are similar in unvaccinated and vaccinated people, even though vaccinated people tend to experience less-severe cases of COVID-19.
The CDC on Monday had not published the new data, which is based on 100 samples collected in recent days.
Dallas County reported 20 cases of the delta variant as of Monday. Of the latest available state data, the delta variant made up 587 of 7,965 variant cases in Texas. However, not every positive COVID-19 sample is sequenced to determine whether it is a variant case, so these numbers are not comprehensive totals of delta variant cases.
In North Texas and across the U.S., data shows that the majority of COVID-19 deaths are in unvaccinated people. Of the 4,183 total coronavirus deaths reported by Dallas County as of Monday, 99.6% were in unvaccinated people.
But, Fox said, fully vaccinated people should still be wearing masks, given the prominence of the delta variant and the surge in North Texas cases and hospitalizations.
“While vaccinated people have a much lower risk of having severe infections, they are still getting infected, and they are still likely contributing to the transmission cycle,” he said. “So, the people you’re protecting are still the same people we’ve been protecting for the majority of the pandemic, which are those who are most vulnerable to the pandemic.”
Masks prevent infected individuals from exposing others to the virus and protect uninfected people by forming a protective barrier to large respiratory droplets.
The more a community adopts mask-wearing, the more it benefits each individual member of a community, according to an article by Dr. John Brooks, the chief medical officer for the CDC’s emergency COVID-19 response, on the effectiveness of mask-wearing published in February.
Katelyn Jetelina, an assistant professor at the UTHealth School of Public Health in Dallas, said masks worked well to protect against COVID-19 over the last year. And as tiring as it may be to wear them again, she said, it’s part of a team effort to curb the spread of the virus — an effort that includes fully vaccinated people, especially in the face of a “new wave of unprecedented spread.”
“They did do their part in getting the vaccination and that helps a lot,” Jetelina said. “But we need cooperation even further, for a little longer, until we can get this thing under control,” Jetelina said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.