United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) applauded new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines urging vaccinated and unvaccinated Americans to resume wearing face masks indoors in areas with high COVID-19 transmission rates.
UFCW said the updated CDC mask policy, released yesterday, bolsters COVID safety for frontline grocery and other retailer workers, who remain exposed to the virus in stores, but falls short of the protection that a national mask requirement would bring.
The CDC’s latest guidance comes amid a recent surge of COVID infections from the Delta variant, which is 1,000 times more transmissible than earlier versions of the virus. In the United States, COVID cases have more than doubled over the past two weeks, and almost two-thirds of U.S. counties now have increased COVID transmission, UFCW reported, citing COVID-19 tracking data from The New York Times.
Meanwhile, national vaccination rates have slowed, with just under half of Americans fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Through the afternoon of July 27, 56.9% of the U.S. population had received at least one COVID vaccine dose but just 49.2% had been fully vaccinated, with 342.6 million vaccines administered of the 395.5 million delivered by manufacturers, according to CDC data.
“Today’s new CDC mask policy is a critical step that sounds the alarm about the explosion in COVID Delta cases and makes clear that wearing masks indoors is critical to stopping the spread of this deadly virus. But the reality is that the CDC recommendation does not go far enough. A national mask mandate is the only way we can finally take control of this virus, and every retail CEO in the country must recognize that now is the time for all of us to mask up so we can keep our economy open and communities safe,” UFCW International President Marc Perrone said in a statement.
“With COVID cases continuing to surge, essential workers have been forced to play vaccination police because of the confusing patchwork of state and local mask policies,” he noted. “Urgent action is needed from states and retailers to strengthen COVID safety enforcement so the burden doesn’t fall on the shoulders or essential workers already stretched thin.”
In May, UFCW expressed concern when falling COVID cases and infection rates led the CDC to relax mask guidance, recommending that vaccinated people no longer needed to wear face masks indoors or outdoors in most settings. The union said the change led to states and retailers to drop mask mandates for vaccinated individuals, even though grocery and other essential workers across the country still risked catching the virus from unvaccinated customers and employees.
The CDC’s new guidelines recommend that vaccinated U.S. adults and children wear a mask indoors in public if they’re in an area of “substantial or high transmission” in order to augment protection from the Delta variant and prevent spreading the virus to others. Those with weakened immune systems and underlying medical conditions, the elderly and the unvaccinated are especially vulnerable and should wear masks, the agency noted, adding that people in contact with these groups at home or in public should wear masks as well.
A CDC map highlighted the Southeast, Midwest and Southwest as areas of high community transmission for COVID-19. Through July 26, 1,608 U.S. counties (or 49.9% of the nation’s counties) had high transmission rates, up 18.1% from seven days earlier.
Through the afternoon of July 28, daily average U.S. cases of COVID-19 were 63,248, up 145% from 14 days ago, according to federal, state and local data compiled by The New York Times. The top 10 states by daily cases per 100,000 people were Louisiana (+307% vs. 14 days ago), Florida (+124%), Arkansas (+61%), Mississippi (+274%), Missouri (+59%), Alabama (+217%), Oklahoma (+229%), Nevada (+43%), Alaska (+185%) and Texas (+178%).
Of its 1.3 million members, UFCW International estimated that at least 462 frontline workers have died from COVID-19 and at least 93,300 have been infected or exposed to the virus since the pandemic began. That includes 197 deaths and at least 43,300 infections or exposures among grocery workers, 132 deaths and 22,400 infections or exposures among meatpacking workers, and 67 deaths and 13,100 infections or exposures among food processing workers.
“As America’s largest union for essential retail and grocery workers, UFCW is calling on the CDC as well as elected and business leaders to do much more to strengthen COVID safety measures and remove the barriers to vaccine access leaving so many essential workers unprotected as we confront this new surge,” Perrone added. “American lives are on the line, and failure to act is not an option.”
The U.S. food retail sector has spent nearly $24 billion on COVID-19 pandemic-related costs, an FMI-The Food Industry study released at the end of March estimated. That includes $3 billion in cleaning/sanitation supplies and labor plus $1 billion in personal protective equipment (PPE) and related expenses. PPE outlays include more than $225 million on face masks and over $160 million on gloves.