Screen shot of the CDC’s transmission level map

The Public Health Department “strongly” recommended Thursday that people wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination status in three Connecticut counties where COVID-19 transmission rates are now high enough to meet new federal masking guidelines.

At a transmission rate of 52.18 cases per 100,000 residents, New Haven County joined New London and Hartford Counties in the “substantial” transmission category Thursday afternoon, crossing the Centers for Disease Control’s threshold for masking indoors. New London County had the highest transmission rate in the state at 63.72 cases, and Hartford followed with 57.19.

Although the rest of Connecticut remained in the “moderate” category, where the CDC was not advising vaccinated people to wear masks, Fairfield County sat right on the 50 cases per 100,000 threshold with 48.76 cases.

In a statement, acting Public Health Commissioner Dr. Deidre Gifford urged residents in the affected counties to observe the federal guidance. She also asked residents with preexisting conditions to wear masks.

“The Connecticut Department of Public Health strongly recommends that individuals who live in, work in, or are visiting towns located in Hartford, New Haven or New London County follow this recommendation,” Gifford said. “In addition, residents across our entire state who have underlying medical conditions that put them at high risk for complications of COVID, or residents who live with high risk or unvaccinated individuals should also consider wearing masks in indoor public spaces.” 

Acting Department of Health Commissioner Deidre Gifford and Chief Operating Officer Josh Geballe (CTNewsjunkie file photo)

The CDC guidelines are recommendations, not mandates and Josh Geballe, state chief operating officer, said Thursday public health officials were reviewing them and discussing options with the governor. But Geballe suggested state mandates were unlikely. 

“It’s not all that obvious that mandates have worked particularly well over the last year and a half,” Geballe said. “It’s our job to communicate the risks and the recommendations and then we really rely on people to take the right action for themselves and their families.”

The governor made similar comments Wednesday but said his administration was taking a look at how the new guidelines would impact the coming school year. He said he expected to announce a decision on school masking requirements in the next two weeks to give parents and teachers time to prepare for the first day of school. 

“There’s no question about it, masking is incredibly effective when it comes to our kids and when it comes to those who are unvaccinated but I don’t want to take our eye off the ball,” Lamont said. “We’re doing everything we can to get more people vaccinated.”

In the meantime, Geballe urged residents who were worried about spread of the virus to feel free to wear a mask, especially in crowded or high transmission areas. 

“If you feel uncomfortable going into a crowded area where there may be a lot of people that you’re not sure of their vaccination status, it’s not hard to wear a mask,” Geballe said. “We’ve all gotten used to doing it over the last year and a half. Certainly feel free to take that extra precaution. That’s your choice.” 

As of Thursday, the state’s overall infection rate stood at 2.35% as another 229 cases were identified. The number of hospitalizations grew by 9 to 112. Meanwhile, another seven Connecticut residents died as a result of the virus in the last seven days. 

So far, around 2.3 million Connecticut residents had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. 

In its weekly virus update, the state reported the total number of breakthrough cases of vaccinated residents contracting the coronavirus had grown to 1,133. Breakthrough cases are considered rare. In Connecticut, .06% of fully vaccinated people have contracted the virus. At 27, the total number of deaths in breakthrough cases amounts to 3.2% of COVID deaths since February.