This afternoon, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser announced that, starting Saturday, the city will again require everyone over the age of two to wear face masks indoors, whether they are vaccinated or not. All Washingtonians will now need to mask up at restaurants, museums, gyms, and other public settings in the city.
This news follows the CDC’s guidelines that were updated on Tuesday with the same distressing directive to fully vaccinated people. (Virginia Governor Ralph Northam also recommended wearing masks indoors today.) The efforts aim to curtail the increasing rates and spread of Covid cases across the country due to the Delta variant that’s even more contagious than the virus’s previous iterations.
The CDC specifically recommends people “wear a mask in public indoor settings if they are in an area of substantial or high transmission.” However there was some confusion this week over the status of DC’s transmission levels due to a discrepancy in labeling between the CDC’s definitions and those of the DC Department of Health. According to the city’s Department of Health’s website, DC remains in the “moderate” category of community spread with a daily case rate (per 100,000 population) of 8.3. The CDC considers an area with a “substantial” transmission rate to mean that there are between 50 and 99.99 total new cases per 100,000 people in the past seven days. The organization says the level of community transmission in DC is “substantial” and its Covid data tracker says the seven-day case rate per 100,000 people is 52.
Shortly after the new guidelines went public on Tuesday, the White House informed its staff that masks were once again required on the premises. “The new [CDC] data moved Washington, D.C., from yellow to orange, indicating that it has a ‘substantial’ level of community transmission, senior officials said,” wrote the New York Times, describing the memo. “Over the past week, the city had a seven-day average of 52 cases per day, a 148 percent increase from the average two weeks ago.” Using the CDC’s definitions, the New York Times, Politico, and other outlets said that DC’s transmission fell into this concerning “substantial” category, but the numbers have not been similarly reflected in DC’s local Covid reporting.
On Thursday, director of DC Health LaQuandra Nesbitt explained the confusion in the Mayor’s press conference:
You will note here that there are some indicators that are of key interest, in particular the daily case rate, that have now become yellow again, indicating that we have moderate transmission in the District of Columbia. One of the things that I’d like to highlight is that several months, likely six months or so before the CDC created a continuum for transmission and it created metrics related to the daily case rate and the test positivity rate—meaning their continuum consists of low, moderate, substantial, and high transmission—the District of Columbia had already committed to three categories of transmission: low, moderate, and substantial. As such there is overlap between what DC’s metrics indicate to be moderate transmission and the CDC’s definitions of low and moderate, and then there is overlap between DC’s moderate category and the CDC’s substantial category. So you will be mindful of that when you are reviewing and trying to understand from a verbiage point of view where the District of Columbia is in transmission.
Nesbitt later said that in July alone, DC has seen an exponential jump in cases, which is happening across the country as well. So, masks are once again the best tool we can use to stay safe, especially for those in close contact with people who are high-risk or unvaccinated. This uptick in Covid cases will likely fuel more calls to require vaccinations on a widespread scale, too. DC Government plans to implement a vaccination requirement for staffers. Today, President Biden is expected to announce that all federal employees and contractors must be vaccinated or submit to regular Covid testing (though he is stopping short of making that call for the entire military).
Frustratingly, it means that though we may have enjoyed a few weeks of summertime optimism imagining a light at the end of this pandemic tunnel, we’re facing the difficult reality that just 49 percent of the country is fully vaccinated as the Delta variant spreads with a vengeance. That’s why we’ll continue to see federal agencies, school districts, and workplaces asking everyone—vaccinated or not–to be extra careful and mask up indoors.