National Nurses United, the largest union of registered nurses, is urging the CDC to reestablish its recommendation for everyone to wear masks in public, regardless of vaccination status, to prevent COVID-19 infections and variants from spreading.
In a letter sent Monday to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, NNU asked the agency to reinstate universal masking, update its COVID-19 guidance to fully recognize aerosol transmission and require infection tracking and reporting among essential workers as well as those who are fully vaccinated.
"We're concerned that people have a false sense of security with the CDC recommendations, and nurses see every single day that people are becoming very lax [about] wearing masks," said Deborah Burger, president of NNU.
She said although the CDC's guidelines from May state that unvaccinated people should continue wearing masks, many do not for various reasons, and nurses are worried it could lead to another COVID-19 surge.
The letter cited statistics from the CDC, arguing that updates to public health measures are necessary as there has been a 16% increase in daily new cases nationwide during the previous week and 25 states have seen a rise in hospitalizations. Currently, only 48% of the U.S. population is vaccinated, according to the CDC.
While COVID vaccines can prevent serious illness and death, Burger said none are 100% effective and vaccinated individuals can still transmit the virus and its variants.
The spread of the Delta variant caused the World Health Organization to recommend in June that fully vaccinated people also wear masks.
While he applauds nurses for showing concern for public health, Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director at the American Public Health Association, said the APHA will continue to support CDC recommendations and focus on vaccination efforts.
Benjamin said CDC guidelines are scientifically sound and support the data showing that vaccines are effective in controlling the Delta variant and reducing hospitalizations due to the virus.
At this point, America is not going back to wearing masks all the time, and people should decide whether to wear a mask based on the environment they are in, he said.
For those who are not vaccinated or are in healthcare settings and areas with low immunization rates, Benjamin said wearing a mask makes sense.
"We ought to make sure that we don't get into mask shaming," Benjamin said. "We should not [assume people's] vaccination status because of the presence or absence of a mass, nor should we assume their political leanings, based on the presence or absence of a mass."
NNU also states in the letter that the lack of a national framework to track and report COVID-19 infections among healthcare workers and other essential workers has also led to significant miscalculations.
The CDC reported 1,691 healthcare workers deaths from COVID-19 as of July 11, whereas NNU said 3,956 healthcare workers have died from COVID-19.
The CDC did not provide a comment by deadline.
Because global vaccination rates are low, putting immunocompromised people at risk and leaving room for a variant to emerge that can work around vaccines, Burger said nurses are frustrated that agencies and individuals won't take precautionary measures.
"It's heartbreaking on many levels when we're called the heroes in this pandemic, yet [people] won't listen to what the heroes say," Burger said.