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WHO asks people who are fully vaccinated to continue to wear face masks

The World Health Organization (WHO) officially recommended that people who are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus should continue wearing face masks to curb the spread of the virus, including dangerous new variants.

The recommendation announced Friday comes in response to rising coronavirus cases around the world, driven by the delta variant that was first identified in India, and which has become the dominant strain in many countries around the world, including the UK, South Africa and Malaysia.

COVID-19 cases are steadily on the rise again and only 10.7% of the world is fully vaccinated. WHO’s recommendation contradicts that of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a global authority on infectious diseases that has received some criticism during the pandemic.

The CDC website currently advises that people who are fully vaccinated can stop wearing masks, and that groups of people can congregate — for instance, at home or a concert. Here’s what we know about the WHO’s guidance on masks.

Why does the WHO say vaccinated people should wear face masks?

Wearing a mask consistently continues to be important, even for people who are vaccinated, WHO Assistant Director-General Mariângela Batista Galvão Simão said during a press briefing on June 25. “People cannot feel safe just because they had the two doses. They still need to protect themselves.”

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Wearing masks in public places is essential to help people from inhaling particles that will cause them to become sick, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, an American infectious disease epidemiologist, said during the same briefing.

While the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are showing robust protection against variants, “breakthrough” infections may still sporadically occur. In June, a fully vaccinated woman in Napa, California, died from COVID-19. She was over 65 and was reported to have underlying medical conditions.

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The CDC’s current guidance on mask-wearing continues to remain the same for fully vaccinated people. The guidelines say those who are fully vaccinated can “resume activities without wearing masks or physically distancing” except where required, such as planes and businesses.

The CDC warned CNN on Saturday that there’s still a small chance fully vaccinated people can become infected with the new variant if they’re exposed. We’ve asked the CDC for comment.

The delta variant is the latest of new coronavirus variants and is the most contagious of the variants identified so far, according to the WHO. The delta variant has been identified in 85 countries so far and is spreading among the unvaccinated population, the organization said during the press conference.

“The delta variant is currently the greatest threat in the US to our attempt to eliminate COVID-19,” Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said during a White House press briefing June 22.

Some countries have already begun tightening COVID-19 restrictions. For instance, four cities across Australia have returned to lockdown, including Sydney’s state of New South Wales. In the US, Los Angeles County is strongly recommending face masks indoors, regardless of whether someone has been vaccinated or not, though masks aren’t required in most places. Some countries within Africa and Asia — for instance, South Africa and Malaysia — have also moved into lockdown due to the delta variant spreading.

Some places never loosened mask mandates, such as airports and airlines. In the US, other public transportation facilities require masks, such as buses and trains.

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