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Surgeon general backs localized mask mandates

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U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said he supports county governments reinstating mask mandates as a way to combat the spread of the coronavirus among unvaccinated people.

During a Sunday interview on ABC News’s “This Week,” Murthy said local governments have flexibility to make their own decisions regarding masks and other measures. 

Current CDC guidelines don’t put limits on counties making their own rules, Murthy said. For instance, last week Los Angeles County health officials responded to an uptick in cases by reimposing an indoor mask mandate on everyone, regardless of vaccination status.

“It’s very reasonable for counties to take more mitigation measures, like the mask rules that you see coming out in L.A., and I anticipate that will happen in other parts of the country, too,” Murthy said.

“Counties certainly have the right to put mitigation measures back in place, and that’s not contradictory to the guidance the CDC has issued,” Murthy added.

Public health experts largely agreed that L.A. County’s decision to reimpose an indoor mask mandate was wise but said it wouldn’t make much difference without wider implementation in the areas of the country with extremely low vaccination rates.

There’s not much political will to reimpose mask mandates in the areas that need it the most. 

Many Republican governors have banned local jurisdictions from implementing mask policies.

But they have also banned vaccination passports in any form, including from private employers, emphasizing that vaccination is a personal choice.

Critics of L.A. County’s move, including the county sheriff’s department, said it was not rooted in science, and governments shouldn’t be forcing fully vaccinated individuals to wear masks, even if they have the authority to do so.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky on Friday encouraged local officials across the country to consider similar preventative measures but indicated the agency would not be changing its own masking recommendations that fully vaccinated people do not need to wear masks in most settings.

But the CDC does not write laws, and their guidelines are just recommendations for people to follow. As a result, mask recommendations are technically still in effect for unvaccinated people, but it’s largely based on the honor system.

Walensky warned the rapid spread of the delta variant is worrisome and cautioned “this is becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

Biden administration officials are grappling with how to protect the unvaccinated while continuing to emphasize that vaccinated people remain at much lower risk of infection.

U.S. officials have been sounding the alarm for weeks that the delta variant is a risk to areas with low vaccination rates, which could undermine the hard-earned progress of driving cases down. 

Tags CDC Coronavirus COVID-19 mask mandates Pandemic Rochelle Walensky Vaccination Vaccine hesitancy Vivek Murthy

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