Delta Variant Affect On Return-to-Work Mask Policies

Last Updated on August 16, 2021

With a growing percentage of the United States population fully vaccinated against COVID-19, many localities and, in turn, employers, have eased mask mandates and policies. However, due to the spread of an emerging variant of coronavirus known as Delta, these policies may still need updating, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has now announced updates to its mask guidelines.

Protecting Against the Spread of Delta

Delta is a highly infectious form of COVID-19. According to CDC data, it’s currently the most common coronavirus variant in the United States by a significant margin, accounting for over 80% of coronavirus cases. The CDC has expressed that coronavirus vaccines effectively protect against the Delta variant, and they have been found to reduce the likelihood of severe illness, hospitalization and death. Although the vaccines are largely effective at preventing the spread of the coronavirus, “breakthrough cases” of Delta have been found to be contagious, even for fully vaccinated individuals.

While vaccination is the most effective way to prevent the spread of Delta, according to health experts, other mitigation tactics remain useful in the fight against coronavirus. Among other steps, masks can continue to play a key role in preventing the spread of coronavirus and its variants, even for fully vaccinated individuals.

Updated CDC Guidance on Mask-wearing

The CDC’s updated guidance now recommends that fully vaccinated individuals wear masks in public indoor settings when in areas with high or substantial transmission of COVID-19. At the time of this writing, over 75% of U.S. counties have high or substantial transmission of COVID-19, according to CDC data. The guidelines also recommend masks be worn by all individuals in K-12 schools regardless of vaccination status. The agency continues to recommend that unvaccinated individuals continue to wear a mask indoors and potentially in some crowded outdoor settings. This update from the CDC is, in part, a reversal from previous agency guidance, which allowed fully vaccinated individuals to stop wearing a mask in most settings.

This CDC guidance, paired with increases in cases of Delta has prompted some localities—and employers—to reinstate—or keep their mask policies in place as their workplaces reopen.

How Employers Are Reacting

How employers choose to recommend or require masks has continued to vary. In addition to CDC guidance, many variables may influence how an employer responds—such as local masks guidelines and mandates, community levels of transmission or vaccination, employee attitudes, or even the nature of the business.