Federal COVID-19 health guidelines recommend that vaccinated residents of most metro area counties should wear masks indoors, according to an update issued Friday afternoon.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Tuesday that while vaccinated people are less likely to become infected with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, they have the potential to spread the disease to others.
In the seven-county metro area, all counties except Carver are seeing worrisome case transmission rates, in addition to 29 more counties statewide, based on per capita case rates and percentage of tests that are positive.
The rapidly spreading delta variant has governments and private companies reassessing their mask policies just two months after federal officials said masks were not needed for the fully vaccinated.
The Minnesota Judicial Branch, which had ended its mask requirement, told its chief judges Friday that they could reinstate mask-wearing in courtrooms and public spaces of court facilities.
Hennepin County Public Health said it encourages everyone to "follow CDC guidance and to mask indoors, whether or not they are fully vaccinated."
"Hennepin County leadership will be discussing next steps for the county in the coming days," spokeswoman Carolyn Marinan said.
Ramsey County Public Health spokesman Christopher Burns said, "We are very concerned about the rise in community transmission and are monitoring the data."
Burns said the county is continuing COVID-19 vaccination outreach efforts, but there are no changes to mask policies for visitors or staff in county buildings.
"Any policy change on masking would be a board decision, which would be informed by recommendations and expertise of our public health staff," he said.
The Minnesota Department of Health said it supports the CDC mask recommendations.
"We will continue to … share the data with locals and encourage them to think about increasing community level protections as the conditions warrant," Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said.
The state's public health emergency has ended, meaning that it cannot issue a mask mandate, but local public health agencies do have that option.
"At this point in time, that would be a local governmental decision," Malcolm said. "The No. 1 recommendation is to get vaccinated."
Altogether, 35 of Minnesota's 87 counties are considered to have substantial or high virus transmission, according to the CDC.
Dodge, Lake and Morrison counties are considered to have high transmission rates.
The 32 counties that have substantial rates are Aitkin, Anoka, Benton, Crow Wing, Dakota, Douglas, Fillmore, Freeborn, Hennepin, Hubbard, Isanti, Kandiyohi, Lake of the Woods, Le Sueur, McLeod, Meeker, Nobles, Ramsey, Redwood, Renville, Rice, Rock, Scott, Sherburne, Stearns, Swift, Traverse, Waseca, Washington, Wilkin, Winona and Wright.
When the federal health agency first announced the indoor masking policy on Tuesday, only 14 Minnesota counties were on the list.
That increase is mirrored in COVID-19 public health measures compiled by the Minnesota Department of Health.
The statewide per capita case growth rate is 6%, putting it above the 5% cautionary level set by public health officials.
Another 702 new COVID-19 infections were reported on Friday. The test positivity rate was 3.1%, up from 1.2% at the beginning of July.
The state's hospitals were caring for 231 COVID-19 patients, an 11% increase from the previous day. Of those, 64 were receiving intensive care, a one-day increase of seven.
Although the CDC had earlier said that vaccinated people did not have to wear masks indoors, the change was made as more information came to light about the highly infectious delta variant.
"We are seeing that people who are infected with delta have higher viral loads," state Infectious Disease Director Kris Ehresmann said. "Fully vaccinated people who have a breakthrough illness might be infectious and could potentially spread the virus to others.
"That is why they made this recommendation for masking vaccinated persons," she said.
As of Wednesday, 63.7% or nearly 3 million Minnesotans 12 and older had completed the COVID-19 vaccination series
Five more deaths were announced Friday, including three who were long-term care residents. One person was in the 40 to 44 age category while another was 100 or older.
Since the pandemic began, Minnesota has confirmed 612,701 infections and had 7,668 fatalities.
Glenn Howatt • 612-673-7192