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WHO Urges Fully Vaccinated People to Wear Masks Due to Delta Variant Spread

woman wearing face mask and walking

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UPDATE

As of June 30, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is maintaining its stance that fully-vaccinated individuals don't need to wear a mask in most situations.

Key Takeaways

  • The World Health Organization says fully vaccinated people should continue to wear face masks due to the presence of the Delta variant, a transmissible strain of COVID-19.
  • Current CDC guidelines state that fully vaccinated people do not need to wear masks.
  • Experts advise people in the U.S. to seek out vaccinations, be cautious, and wait for the CDC response.

The World Health Organization (WHO) on Friday urged fully vaccinated people to continue to wear face masks and maintain social distance, as the Delta variant of COVID-19 spreads quickly around the world. The guidance is causing some confusion in the U.S., where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) maintains that “fully vaccinated people can resume activities without wearing a mask or physically distancing.” But experts say that could change.

“The Delta variant is a dangerous virus,” Maria Van Kerkhove, COVID-19 technical lead at the WHO, said at Friday’s press conference. “It is more transmissible than the Alpha variant, which was extremely transmissible across Europe—across any country that it entered.”

The Delta variant, first identified in India, has been circulating in the U.S. since March. It has also accounted for more than 90% of COVID-19 cases in the United Kingdom in early June, according to the British Medical Journal.

“People cannot feel safe just because they had two doses,” Mariângela Batista Galvão Simão, WHO assistant director general said at the press conference. “They still need to protect themselves.”

Do COVID-19 Vaccines Protect Against the Delta Variant?


Experts say vaccines authorized in the U.S. remain largely effective against the Delta variant. Further mutations, however, could be a concern. 

“Right now, our public health and social measures work, our vaccines work, our diagnostics work, our therapeutics work,” Van Kerkhove said. “But there may be a time where this virus evolves and these countermeasures don't.”

Ensuring that as many people as possible are vaccinated is essential in reducing the chances for a mutation and ending the pandemic, Robert Quigley, MD, senior vice president and global medical director at International SOS, tells Verywell.

“I have not received or read enough evidence to tell me that these vaccines are not working,” Quigley says. “I've seen evidence to the contrary; I've seen the case numbers in the Americas go down logarithmically.”

What This Means For You

Due to the presence of the Delta variant, a highly transmissible strain of COVID-19, the World Health Organization is advising fully vaccinated people to wear masks and social distance. While the CDC has yet to weigh in on the topic, experts say they expect a response soon.

Could the Delta Variant be a Variant of High Consequence?

When new COVID-19 variants surface, they are classified as Variants of Interest (VOI), Variants of Concern (VOC), or Variants of High Consequence (VOHC), by both the WHO and CDC. VOIs are the least threatening variants while VOHCs are the most dangerous.

The Delta variant currently falls in the middle category, VOC, which is “closely monitored and characterized by federal agencies,” according to the CDC.

If the CDC is to match the WHO recommendations for face mask use among vaccinated people, the CDC may need to increase the status of the Delta variant from VOC to VOHC, as well, Quigley says.

“In so doing, they would be obligated to encourage—just like the WHO has—that individuals, even if they're fully vaccinated, continue to wear masks and practice other mitigation measures,” he adds, noting that such a decision shouldn’t be taken lightly, due to the mental and economic toll lock-downs and distancing measures have taken on the population.

“Society is tired of this disease; they want to move on with their lives,” Quigley says. “The economy has been perhaps irreparably injured, here in America and globally. The last thing anybody wants is to start taking steps backwards.”

When Experts Disagree, Who Do We Trust?


The WHO and the CDC both operate under the International Health Regulations (IHR), which provides a framework for dealing with public health across multiple countries. So, even when agencies disagree, they are usually in close communication.

“I can promise you that these organizations are not operating in vacuums,” Quigley says. “There is a platform through which these organizations communicate.”

He advises looking to the agency that governs where you live. For the U.S., that’s the CDC.

“WHO, they’re looking at the world,” he says. “In America, we've got a fairly substantial vaccination rate, which is a good thing...and we don’t have as much of the Delta variant.”

“Could that change in a week?” he adds. “Absolutely.”

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. Mahase E. Delta variant: What is happening with transmission, hospital admissions, and restrictions? BMJ. Published online June 15, 2021. doi:10.1136/bmj.n1513

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. SARS-CoV-2 variant classifications and definitions. Updated June 23, 2021.