Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is recommending — but not requiring — Virginians to “consider” wearing masks indoors in areas where there is an increased risk of COVID-19 transmission as he continued to urge vaccination as the “surest way” to end the pandemic.
The recommendation comes amid concern about rising coronavirus cases driven by the more contagious delta variant and new guidelines from federal health officials recommending a return to indoor masking in areas of substantial spread of the virus — which includes parts of Virginia.
“All Virginians should consider wearing a mask in public indoor settings where there is increased risk” of COVID-19 transmission, Northam tweeted Thursday, adding, “This is not a requirement, but a recommendation.”
All Virginians should consider wearing a mask in public indoor settings where there is increased risk of #COVID19 transmission, as the new @CDCgov guidance recommends.
This is not a requirement, but a recommendation.
— Governor Ralph Northam (@GovernorVA) July 29, 2021
Northam’s message came the same day D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced the District would require masks indoor regardless of vaccination status starting July 31 at 5 a.m.
D.C. is now considered to have “substantial” community transmission under CDC criteria, which is based on the total number of coronavirus cases in the past seven days per 100,000 residents.
In Maryland, cases are also on an upswing, but not to the levels where the CDC says people should return to wearing masks indoors. Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, said masks are recommended in certain situations but not required.
“We continue to strongly recommend, but not require, that individuals who are not fully vaccinated continue to wear face coverings in indoor settings outside their home and in outdoor settings when physical distancing cannot be maintained,” he told WTOP in an email.
Overall, Virginia recorded more than 1,100 new coronavirus cases Thursday. That’s up from less than 200 daily cases a month ago — and it’s also the highest daily number since late April.
There are several area in the commonwealth that also meet the threshold for “substantial” community spread of the virus, including Alexandria and Loudoun and Prince William counties.
In Virginia, the new CDC guidance has spurred recommendations but not necessarily new orders or mandates.
In a statement earlier this week, the Virginia Department of Health said it was still analyzing the guidance. “Virginia’s approach to COVID-19 has always been driven by science, and we continue to emphasize that the only way out of this pandemic is through vaccination,” the agency said.
In his tweet Thursday, Northam attributed the rise in cases to the spread of the delta variant, but he said “we know the vaccines work,” pointing out that since January, more than 98% of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths in Virginia have involved unvaccinated people.
“Masks are effective at preventing the spread of #COVID19, but getting vaccinated is the surest way we can bring this pandemic to an end,” he tweeted.
Part of the CDC’s rationale for updating the mask guidance was because of new research indicating the delta variant leads to similar viral loads in both unvaccinated and vaccinated patients.
There has also been concern about “breakthrough cases” involving COVID-19 infection of vaccinated people.
In Prince William County — which is one of the Virginia counties listed as having “substantial” transmission — roughly 25% to 30% of the county’s 223 cases between July 1 and July 17 were breakthrough cases, Sean Morris, COVID-19 epidemiologist with the Prince William Health District, told WTOP in an email.
In another email, Morris said: “Almost all breakthrough cases are either asymptomatic or mild, and hospitalization or death in vaccinated individuals is extremely rare. … Breakthrough cases are expected as spread increases and (the Prince William Health District) appears to be in line with national trends, and with the growth of the Delta variant and a rise in cases it is vital to get vaccinated now. Even if you get COVID after being vaccinated, the vaccine gives your immune system a head start to fighting it, resulting in an extremely low chance you’ll have severe disease.”
WTOP’s Scott Gelman contributed to this report.
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