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Dr. Fauci on CDC’s reimposed mask guidelines, vaccine requirements and GOP criticism

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reimposed stricter mask-wearing guidelines Tuesday. It said Americans, even if fully vaccinated, should wear masks indoors in regions where COVID-19 infections are high, and recommended that everyone in K-12 schools mask up. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The U.S. Centers for Disease Control today undid earlier advice and reimposed stricter mask-wearing guidelines around the country.

    CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said people who are fully vaccinated should resume wearing masks indoors in regions where coronavirus infections and transmission are high. She also recommended that everyone in K-12 schools wear a mask, whatever their vaccination status.

    And, late today, the White House confirmed that President Biden will announce on Thursday that all federal workers and contractors must be vaccinated against COVID. Those who refuse could face regular testing and other requirements.

    Dr. Anthony Fauci is director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the chief medical adviser to the president.

    Dr. Fauci, thank you very much for joining us.

    Part of this new guidance has to do with telling people, even those who are vaccinated, that, when they are in indoor places, that they should wear a mask, if they're in locations where the virus is surging. But how are they to know where the virus is surging? That part seems unclear.

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci:

    Well, the CDC has a coding system of blue, yellow, orange, red.

    It's easily accessible online. When you look at it, if you're in a red or orange zone, that's the zone that the CDC is specifically talking about, not the yellow zone. And it really is the number of cases that you get per 100,000 population.

    For example, the — they talk about substantial. That means either 50 to 99.9 cases per 100,000. And when you have a high level, it's greater than 100 cases per 100,000.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So — but you're saying that's not too complicated for some Americans to follow?

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci:

    Yes, I think that most of the people, Judy, from a practical standpoint, you know if you're in a high-level area.

    Most of the country is in either an orange or a red zone. So it isn't as if there are just a couple of states there. If you look at the map, there are, particularly in the Southern part of the country, when you look at the Southern states, those are pretty much dominated by orange and red.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Anthony Fauci, the CDC is saying that this is based on new science, new data, showing that even those who are vaccinated can carry the virus with them, they can be contagious.

    This seems to contradict what we have been told, that, once you get vaccinated, you're protected.

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci:

    Well, in some respects, yes.

    But what has changed, Judy, is, the virus has changed. The recommendations and the discussion that we were having months ago, that the CDC was basing their recommendations on were dealing with what was called the Alpha variant, which is considerably different than the Delta variant.

    The Delta variant has a very unusual capability of spreading much more easily than the Alpha did. And the other data we're having right now is that, when people get breakthrough infections, when they're vaccinated and they get infected, even when they have a situation where they don't have an advanced disease, they clearly can transmit it to other people.

    This is not a common event. So I don't want people to be thinking that all kinds of vaccinated people are transmitting it. No, it's a very unusual, rare event, but it occurs.

    So, when you have vaccinated people who might have a breakthrough infection, and we know now as the fact, as a scientific fact, that they can transmit the virus to an uninfected person, it's for that reason that the CDC made the change in recommendation, and did, just as you correctly stated, namely, that, if you are vaccinated, if you are in indoor setting, you should still wear a mask.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I hear you saying it is based on science, but to many Americans who are by now pandemic-weary, do you understand why they may be looking at this?

    And we're hearing this from some — from a number of Americans saying, well, why did the CDC change the guidelines two months ago? Were they — did they jump the gun when they did that? Or they're asking, why weren't they more transparent in the beginning?

    People are asking these kinds of questions.

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci:

    Those are reasonable questions, Judy.

    But what — I think what we all need to — realizing, we are dealing with an evasive type of a virus. It evolves, so that people need to understand — it's a painful realization, but it's true. We're dealing with a virus that's a wily character, if you want to make a metaphor out of it.

    It's one that, when the CDC made that recommendation 60 days ago, you were dealing with the Alpha variant, which is very different than the Delta variant we're seeing now. So it isn't a question of the CDC flip-flopping in a vacuum. They are keeping up with the evolution of what's going on with the virus.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I do want to ask you about a piece of this message. And that has to do with schoolchildren all being asked, everyone in school, whoever, people working, teachers, schoolchildren, wearing masks.

    But we now see pushback from conservative like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. He's saying that this is not based on science. He says — and I'm quoting — "No indication — there's no indication that areas with mask mandates have performed any better than areas without mask mandates."

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci:

    Yes, I mean, I just think that doesn't necessarily prove the point that he's making.

    We do know that the science shows now that even people who are vaccinated and get a breakthrough infection can transmit. We want to keep the school — we — we're saying the country does. The CDC makes the recommendations. The local school areas make the decision.

    And the recommendation of the CDC is that we want, above all things, to get the children back to school in person. We don't want to go back to virtual. We don't want to close the schools. We want, when the fall term comes, the children are in school.

    And in order to keep them safe in that setting, giving the changing situation that has occurred, that's why the recommendation to keep everybody masked when you're dealing with school, even if you're vaccinated.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Dr. Fauci, other pushback we're hearing from conservatives, they're saying this new mandate is going to undermine confidence on the part of people who haven't been vaccinated yet. It's going to take away the incentive to get vaccinated.

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci:

    No, I would think, Judy, just the opposite.

    We would not be in this situation if we already had now the overwhelming proportion of the population vaccinated. We would not be having the viral dynamics that give you a red and an orange zone. If we had the overwhelming proportion of the people vaccinated, we would not be having this conversation.

    So the solution to all of this is to get vaccinated and get that 100 million people in the country who are eligible for vaccines who have not gotten vaccinated to get vaccinated. And that's the reason why I'm heartened to see that, among the conservative Republicans, among people like Steve Scalise, and even Governor DeSantis himself, who are promoting vaccination, people like Governor Asa Hutchinson, who's out there beating the bushes trying to get people vaccinated.

    That's the way to go. That's what's going to settle this problem.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    One other thing, Dr. Fauci.

    President Biden saying today that he is considering requiring the entire federal work force to be vaccinated. Do you think that's a good idea?

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci:

    I think that kind of a mandate — I think we need mandates. I do. I don't think we need a federal mandate from the president to say mandating the entire country.

    But the things that you have control over, the federal work force, I believe the move by Secretary Denis McDonough of the Veterans Administration was both prudent and advisable.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Anthony Fauci, we thank you very much.

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci:

    Thank you, Judy. Thank you for having me.

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