Masks for everyone, CDC says, as local officials continue to push vaccine message
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday updated its guidelines to urge vaccinated people in certain areas of the country — including Caldwell County — to resume wearing masks indoors in public areas as concerns about the delta variant of COVID-19 continue to grow among health professionals.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky announced that the agency now recommends people in areas with “high” or “substantial” COVID-19 transmission should resume wearing facial coverings regardless of vaccination status.
The CDC is also recommending everyone in K-12 schools mask up while indoors.
The decision came as the delta variant, a highly contagious mutation of the coronavirus, has appeared in communities across the United States, including Austin and Travis County, where a third wave is straining hospital capacity according to Dr. Desmar Walkes, Austin-Travis County health authority.
According to CDC data, nearly two-thirds of counties in the United States have high or substantial transmission of COVID-19.
Included in the CDC’s high transmission category are Travis and Caldwell Counties. To qualify as high transmission per CDC guidelines, a county must have a 10 percent increase in positive cases over a two-week time period.
While some local governments in other states have returned to mask mandates, the state of Texas is continuing to push the message that vaccines are necessary, but government mask mandates will not return in the Lone Star State.
The Office of the Governor Greg Abbott on Tuesday released the following statement on the CDC’s mask guideline changes:
“Governor Abbott has been clear that the time for government mandating of masks is over — now is the time for personal responsibility. Every Texan has the right to choose whether they will wear a mask or have their children wear masks. Vaccines are the most effective defense against contracting COVID and becoming seriously ill, and we urge all eligible Texans to get the vaccine. The COVID vaccine will always remain voluntary and never forced in Texas.”
Local governments in Texas — which include cities, counties and school districts — are prohibited from mandating mask wearing. Gov. Greg Abbott in May issued an executive order subjecting local governments or officials who attempt to impose a mask mandate to a fine of up to $1,000.
In Caldwell County, local officials are urging unvaccinated members of their community to get the vaccine to protect themselves against COVID-19.
However, during a briefing Tuesday about updated mask guidance, Walensky said the Delta variant is more likely to infect even people who are fully vaccinated, although she stressed that the vast majority of COVID-19 transmission is occurring in and through unvaccinated people.
“We are now actively conducting outbreak investigations of what is occurring in places that are having clusters, and many of you have heard of many of those clusters,” Walensky said. “What we’ve learned in that context is that when we examine the rarer breakthrough infections, we look at the amount of virus in those people, it is pretty similar to the amount of virus in unvaccinated people.”
According to the most recent data from the Texas Department of State Health Services, about 52.23 percent of people ages 12 and up in Texas can be considered fully vaccinated. In Caldwell County, 52.14 percent of people ages 12 and up have been vaccinated with at least one dose, and 43.55 percent of people in that same age group can be considered fully vaccinated, according to DSHS data updated on Tuesday evening.
Lockhart Mayor Lew White said the city would continue to push the message that people get vaccinated.
“If you’re not, you need to mask up, avoid crowds and get tested regularly if you’re showing symptoms,” White said.
When asked what he thought of the CDC’s updated mask guidelines, White was unequivocal in his response.
“Everyone ought to keep abreast of the CDC guidelines,” he said.
Earlier on Tuesday, before the CDC released its guidance, Caldwell County Judge Hoppy Haden said he didn’t believe it was necessary to have public health guidelines similar to what currently exist in Austin, which returned to Stage 4 Conditions over the weekend. Under Stage 4 conditions, which are tied to the number of new COVID-19 hospital cases in the Austin region, vaccinated citizens are being urged to mask up in most social situations, and unvaccinated individuals are encouraged to avoid unnecessary trips to the store, avoid indoor dining and return to social distancing.
“No, simply because over the last three weeks, we’ve had fewer than 20 new cases in Caldwell County,” Haden said. “We had eight last week and two this week. It’s not like we are having this great surge.
“I was talking to (Travis County) Judge (Cliff) Brown’s office yesterday, and something like 98 percent of the people on ventilators who are hospitalized are unvaccinated. People who had the vaccine have either mild or no symptoms.”
Haden said it was important to get the vaccine — emphasizing its importance during commissioner’s comments at Tuesday’s Caldwell County Commissioners Court meeting — but acknowledged the pain points of encouraging people who didn’t want vaccines to get vaccinated.
The vaccination rate in Caldwell County fell noticeably, he said, when the DSHS changed the age from 18 and up to 12 and up.
The vaccines — made by Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson and Johnson — have each received emergency use authorization in the United States and clinical trials have showed each of the three to be effective in preventing people from getting sick from COVID-19.
Haden himself contracted COVID-19 over the Christmas holiday. He said it took him three weeks to beat it, he developed pneumonia that required antibiotics, and ran a 102-degree fever for 10 straight days.
He got the vaccine as soon as it was available to him and he was medically able, he said. He urged everyone who hadn’t to do the same.
“My message to them is to look at their financials and see if they can miss three weeks of work,” he said. “Most employers are under no obligation to give you that much paid time off if you don’t have three weeks of paid-time-off accrued.”