The threat posed by COVID-19 “remains very real,” and federal health officials should revive universal masking recommendations to protect essential workers, patients and the public, the nation’s largest union for registered nurses said in a letter this week.

National Nurses United urged the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to reinstate the agency’s recommendation that everyone wear masks when in public or in physical proximity to people from other households — “irrespective of vaccination status.”

“The pandemic is not over, and the United States once again stands on the precipice of rising cases,” Bonnie Castillo, the labor union’s executive director, wrote in the letter to CDC director Rochelle Walensky. “Nurses and health-care workers stand ready to care for the sickest patients and to be a crucial part of the pandemic response. But our members need safe workplaces in order to ensure the safety of their patients and communities.”


‘Nurses and health-care workers stand ready to care for the sickest patients and to be a crucial part of the pandemic response. But our members need safe workplaces.’

— Bonnie Castillo, executive director of National Nurses United

The letter came as delta, a more-transmissible variant of COVID-19, continued to drive up coronavirus cases in several countries including the United States. U.S. cases are climbing primarily due to outbreaks in states with lower vaccination rates, but health officials say even vaccinated individuals in some places have been impacted by the delta variant.

“It should come as no surprise that cases are rising following the rapid reopening of many states and the removal of public health measures, including the CDC’s May 13 guidance update that told vaccinated individuals they no longer needed to wear masks, observe physical distancing, avoid crowds, or get tested or isolate after an exposure, within only a few exceptions,” the union’s letter said.

National Nurses United argued that the CDC’s updated guidance had failed to protect medically vulnerable people and children who can’t be vaccinated, as well as people with compromised immune systems for whom the vaccines may not be as effective.

The guidance also didn’t account for the potential for COVID-19 infection and transmission by fully vaccinated people, the union added.

The CDC did not immediately return a MarketWatch request for comment on the letter. The union previously criticized the updated CDC guidance soon after it was issued.

Disagreement over mask-wearing policies

The agency in May said people fully vaccinated against COVID-19 could resume activities they did prior to the pandemic, and do away with masks “except when required by federal, state, local, tribal or territorial rules and laws, as well as under guidance from businesses and workplaces.” Many companies proceeded to relax their own mask policies.

Walensky told NBC News earlier this month that vaccinated individuals “have a very high degree of protection from all of the variants that we are aware of circulating in the United States.”

But people living in communities where virus transmission is high and less than a third of the population is vaccinated “should consider whether the policy should be to mask,” she added. Wearing a mask is “more about protecting the two-thirds of the community that are not vaccinated,” Walensky told the news outlet.

Experts previously told MarketWatch that while delta is a concern, it remains unknown whether infections associated with the variant result in more severe disease — and people shouldn’t “go into panic mode.”

“The world is understandably worried about the delta virus variant,” Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser, said this month. “The vaccines indeed are effective against it.”

World Health Organization, meanwhile, said in late June that risks posed by the delta variant meant even fully vaccinated individuals should continue masking up in public.

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