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Pennsylvania Health Dept. echoes new CDC mask recommendations as delta variant spreads

  • Kiley Koscinski/WESA
A person wearing protective masks due to coronavirus concerns walks in Philadelphia, Thursday, April 2, 2020.

 Matt Rourke / AP Photo

A person wearing protective masks due to coronavirus concerns walks in Philadelphia, Thursday, April 2, 2020.

State officials won’t be mandating masks across the commonwealth in response to new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, but the Pennsylvania Health Department endorsed the agency’s new guidance that calls for masks in areas with high virus transmission rates. Six Pennsylvania counties currently meet the CDC’s threshold for the new masking recommendation.

“We recommend Pennsylvanians, including schools, follow CDC guidance,” a department spokesperson said. “Businesses and local governments may adopt stricter COVID prevention strategies, including mask requirements.”

On Tuesday, the CDC issued new guidance recommending that all people, including those fully vaccinated, wear masks indoors if they live in areas with “significant” or “high” transmission rates. Lawrence, Adams, Wyoming and Northampton Counties are listed by the CDC as places with substantial community transmission. Crawford and Cameron Counties are listed by the agency as experiencing high community transmission.

The Health Department did not specify how residents of the six Pennsylvania counties experiencing substantial or high spread of the virus should alter their behavior, apart from pointing to the CDC guidance.


The majority of Pennsylvania counties are currently experiencing moderate spread of the virus, according to the CDC. But Dr. Graham Snyder, medical director of infection prevention and hospital epidemiology at UPMC, said that doesn’t mean residents shouldn’t be paying closer attention to the exposure risk of different activities.

“I think it would be prudent to be prepared,” said Snyder, who has co-led UPMC’s COVID-19 response. “I would be prepared to see more [virus spread] and see it soon because of the nature of the Delta variant, its transmissibility and because transmissions are happening around the world and in our country and in our state.”

Many Republican officials have already decried the new guidance, which they characterize as a reversal of previous guidelines. But Snyder said the need to add another layer of protection against the spread like masks isn’t a surprise.

“I know it’s frustrating, because so many felt that this moment in time, this summer, we [could] see a light at the end of the tunnel… so this feels like a step back,” Snyder said. “[But] in truth, we saw this coming. We knew that delta was going to emerge in the United States. Even if it wasn’t delta, it will be another variant. Things will continue to ebb and flow.”

That ebb and flow makes it hard to issue rigid public policies that account for the nuanced nature of the virus and new ways to protect against it.

But strong opposition to the new mask guidance could be the result of the poor communication strategy of the CDC, according to Baruch Fischhoff, professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Institute for Politics and Strategy.

“One thing they’ve done wrong is allow it to be framed as a reversal,” said Fischhoff, who studies public perception of risk and human decision-making. He criticized the CDC for not doing a better job of explaining how the data informs their recommendations. “You and I can’t tell what tradeoffs they’re making. You and I can’t tell how contingent these decisions are on a particular situation.”

Fischhoff said earlier guidance that allowed vaccinated people to go maskless in most environments led people to think the worst was behind us and things would only improve.

“[The CDC] knew better than that,” he said. “But they allowed themselves to be caught in what is plausibly interpreted as a reversal which erodes confidence in them,” from the public, he said. “It makes it easier for their foes and more complicated for their friends.”

Gov. Tom Wolf has not issued new statewide guidance about masks since the CDC’s announcement. In an interview with KDKA Radio before the new guidance was issued, Wolf said he did not plan to issue another mask mandate.

On Tuesday, the CDC also recommended all students, faculty and staff mask up before heading back to the classroom this fall. Pittsburgh Public Schools had already announced it would require all people over the age of two to wear masks while indoors at PPS facilities. Exceptions are allowed for eating and while outdoors.

Mask policies at other school districts have been mixed. It’s unclear if the CDC guidance will change policies that have already been announced. Wolf said he won’t require masks in Pennsylvania schools. The Wolf administration has allowed school districts to take the lead on COVID-19 policies throughout the pandemic.

Still, government and health officials both argued that the strongest protection against COVID-19 is a vaccine.

“We cannot stress enough the importance of eligible Pennsylvanians getting vaccinated to stop the spread of COVID-19,” the health department said. “Pennsylvania has made tremendous strides in vaccinating individuals aged 12 years and older. Additionally, data has shown that there is a correlation between increased vaccination rates and lower COVID-19 case counts.”

WITF’s Lisa Wardle contributed to this story.

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