The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is now recommending that everyone — including fully vaccinated individuals — wear masks in indoor public settings in all areas with substantial and high transmission of the COVID-19 virus. They also recommend testing following exposure to someone with a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19.
The CDC made this decision based on evidence from recent investigations of outbreaks involving the Delta variant, which is now the predominant variant in the US. These investigations have shown that on the rare occasion that the Delta variant infects a vaccinated individual, that person can have as much viral load as a non-vaccinated individual infected with the Delta variant.
In its latest Interim Public Health Recommendations for Fully Vaccinated People, the CDC explains that while infections with the Delta variant happen only in a small proportion of people who are fully vaccinated, “preliminary evidence suggests that fully vaccinated people who become infected with the Delta variant can spread the virus to others.” The CDC continues to recommend that vaccinated individuals isolate and be tested if they experience symptoms of COVID-19 and continue to isolate if they test positive.
What does this mean for design firms?
The CDC information is just guidance; employers are not legally required to follow the guidance. The CDC, however, does provide recommendations for individuals and businesses to follow, and OSHA and many states look to the CDC for their own recommendations. Note that in its guidance for non-healthcare facilities updated on June 10, 2021, OSHA relied on the CDC’s guidance for fully vaccinated individuals when it concluded that “most employers no longer need to take steps to protect their fully vaccinated workers who are not otherwise at-risk from COVID-19 exposure,” and focused its guidance on protecting unvaccinated and otherwise at-risk workers. At that time, the CDC was only recommending that non-vaccinated individuals wear face coverings and OSHA aligned its guidance with the CDC recommendation that unvaccinated and otherwise at-risk workers use face coverings or surgical masks, unless their work tasks require a respirator or other PPE. Given OSHA’s reliance on CDC guidance for non-healthcare workplaces, OSHA may expect such workplaces to follow the CDC’s new mask recommendations and is likely to update its guidance to align with current CDC recommendations.
In the last few weeks, many jurisdictions have reinstituted mask requirements or extended existing mandates to cover vaccinated individuals because of the Delta variant. With the recent CDC announcement, others will likely follow the CDC guidance and recommend or require universal masking in indoor public settings in counties where there is substantial or high transmission rates. Unlike CDC and OSHA guidance, some of the state and local recommendations are mandatory. State and local authorities may also adopt the CDC’s view that vaccinated individuals should be tested following exposure to someone with a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19.
What areas have substantial or high transmission?
The CDC provides a color-coded COVID Data Tracker showing the level of transmission by county. The data tracker is updated daily and is based on total new cases per 100,000 persons in the past 7 days and percentage of NAATs (a type of viral diagnostic test) that are positive during the past 7 days. Currently, almost two-thirds of US counties have either substantial or high rates of community transmission.
What is a prudent course of action?
All employers should continue to monitor state and local guidance as well as the level of transmission in their areas. Virus transmission, and therefore related guidance, is evolving rapidly. The CDC links its updated guidance to areas that have substantial and high transmission rates. For some design firms, reinstating mask rules for all employees, regardless of community transmission rates, may be a preferred approach to minimize change, particularly if they have offices in multiple locations. Firms should keep in mind that such a policy might be unpopular with employees in areas of the country where vaccination rates are high and transmission rates are low — currently over one-third of the counties in the country have low to moderate transmission rates, according to the CDC’s tracker, and those rates are decreasing. For design firms that intend to link their mask rules to the varying transmission rates, take care in communications with employees and other stakeholders so firms do not instill fear or create an unproductive distraction every time they adjust masking requirements.