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News Brief: CDC Mask Guidance, Jan. 6 Riot Hearing, Simone Biles' Decision

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

The CDC now says everyone, vaccinated or not, should wear a mask indoors in public spaces if they're in an area where coronavirus cases are surging.

NOEL KING, HOST:

This is a reversal. Back in May, the CDC said fully vaccinated people could take off their masks in most places, but then two things changed. Vaccination rates slowed down and the delta variant kept spreading.

MCCAMMON: For more details on this, we are joined now by NPR's Allison Aubrey. Good morning, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: So can you explain further how exactly the CDC made this decision?

AUBREY: Sure. It's those two main factors you mentioned, the delta variant and slowing vaccinations. About 30% of adults remain unvaccinated in the U.S. And you might ask, why do so many of us have to go back to masking to protect people who refuse to get vaccinated? But really, the rationale goes well beyond this. Remember, kids under 12 cannot be vaccinated. Some people with compromised immune systems don't get full protection from the vaccine, so they're vulnerable. And there's something new, Sarah. New data suggests that vaccinated people who get breakthrough infections could transmit it to others. Here's CDC Director Rochelle Walensky.

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ROCHELLE WALENSKY: Some vaccinated people infected with the delta variant after vaccination may be contagious and spread the virus to others. This new science is worrisome and unfortunately warrants an update to our recommendation.

AUBREY: So the CDC now says if you live in an area with, quote, "substantial or high spread" of the virus, you should mask up indoors even if you're fully vaccinated.

MCCAMMON: So what does that mean? What parts of the country fall into that category of substantial or high spread?

AUBREY: Much of the country, really, with the exception of the Northeast and parts of the upper Midwest. Online, we have a link to a CDC map that breaks it down by county. And looking at that throughout the South and lower Midwest, it looks like almost all of the counties are in the orange or red zone. The same is true for much of the West.

MCCAMMON: A lot of kids will be going back to school several weeks from now. There's also a change in the guidance for schools, right?

AUBREY: That's right. The CDC now recommends universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to schools, kindergarten through 12th grade, regardless of vaccination status. This is also a change. Dr. Walensky says, again, it's due to rising case counts and low vaccination rates.

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WALENSKY: With only 30% of our kids between 12 and 17 fully vaccinated now and a real effort to try and make sure that our kids can safely get back to full, in-person learning, we're recommending that everybody wear masks right now.

AUBREY: They see this as a simple step that offers protection until more people are vaccinated.

MCCAMMON: And, Allison, how are public health experts responding to this new mask guidance from the CDC? Are they on board with it?

AUBREY: Absolutely. I have spoken to a lot of infectious disease experts who have been nudging the CDC for weeks to take this action. The announcement is seen by some as the agency kind of playing catch-up. Here's Dr. Walensky again.

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WALENSKY: I really do believe that masking right now, especially for those unvaccinated, is the temporary measure. What we really need to do to drive down these areas of high transmission is to get more and more people vaccinated and in the meantime, to use masks.

AUBREY: As she has said for months, this really is the key to putting the pandemic behind us.

MCCAMMON: That's NPR's Allison Aubrey. Allison, thanks for the update.

AUBREY: Thank you.

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MCCAMMON: Four police officers who defended the U.S. Capitol from a mob of former President Trump supporters on January 6 testified before a House committee yesterday.

KING: They talked about what they experienced and how it felt. They talked about physical injuries and mental strain. At points, each of them got emotional. Harry Dunn, a Capitol Police officer who's Black, told the committee the mob yelled racial slurs at him.

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HARRY DUNN: Then the crowd, perhaps around 20 people, joined in screaming boo [expletive]. No one had ever, ever called me a [expletive] while wearing the uniform of a Capitol Police officer.

MCCAMMON: NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas is with us now for more. Hello, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

MCCAMMON: Ryan, this was an intense hearing, and as we heard, there was some very disturbing testimony from that day. What more did we learn about what happened at the Capitol on January 6?

LUCAS: Well, more than anything, this was an emotional day for the officers testifying and for the lawmakers on the panel. But it was also visceral. The testimony put listeners and viewers into the shoes of these four police officers and what they went through on January 6. Here's one of them, Michael Fanone of D.C.'s Metropolitan Police.

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MICHAEL FANONE: I was grabbed, beaten, Tazed, all while being called a traitor to my country. I was at risk of being stripped of and killed with my own firearm as I heard chants of kill him with his own gun. I could still hear those words in my head today.

LUCAS: Now, two of the other officers who testified also said they thought that they would die that day. They talked about how the mob attacked them with police shields, batons, sledgehammer, flagpoles, metal bars, rocks. One D.C. police officer, Daniel Hodges, talked about being crushed in a doorway trying to fight back the mob, how somebody tried to gouge his eye out. But there was also verbal abuse, the racial slurs as we heard at the top there from Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn. So all four of these officers were quite blunt about the physical and psychological trauma of January 6 and the scars that they still bear from that day.

MCCAMMON: One thing that surfaced yesterday, it sounds like the testimony from these officers refuted at least two claims we've heard from some Trump supporters - one, that the rioters were unarmed and, two, that they were peaceful.

LUCAS: It did. It did. And the testimony also shot down conspiracy theories that it was antifa or Black Lives Matter or the FBI who actually staged the attack on the Capitol. The officers said in no uncertain terms that the mob that attacked the Capitol on January 6 was made up of Donald Trump supporters. Many of the rioters told the officers on January 6 that Trump had sent them. One thing that struck me was the frustration, maybe even the disgust, that the officers expressed toward Republican lawmakers and others who are downplaying or trying to whitewash the events of January 6. Here is Capitol Police Officer Aquilino Gonell.

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AQUILINO GONELL: And now the same people who we helped, the same people who we gave them the borrowed time to get to safety, now they're attacking us. They're attacking our characters.

LUCAS: Officer Fanone made a similar point, and he pounded the table with his fist for emphasis and called it shameful.

MCCAMMON: This committee took in a lot yesterday, but what can they do here? What is the next step for this investigation?

LUCAS: Well, the committee hasn't said yet who else they want to talk to, whether they'll call on members of Congress to testify, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who's a Trump ally, or even members of the Trump White House, like Chief of Staff Mark Meadows. Subpoenaing a former White House official would likely face legal challenges, though. It could get tied up in the courts. Members of the committee have said what they're going to do is take in this first day of testimony and see where they want to go next.

MCCAMMON: That's NPR's Ryan Lucas. Thank you, Ryan.

LUCAS: Thank you.

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MCCAMMON: Superstar gymnast Simone Biles has withdrawn from the individual all-around final at the Tokyo Olympics.

KING: Yeah. USA Gymnastics made the announcement on her behalf today. Yesterday, Biles pulled out of the team competition, and afterwards, she talked to reporters about what had happened.

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SIMONE BILES: It's been really stressful this Olympic Games I think just as a whole, not having an audience, there are a lot of different variables going into it. It's been a long week. It's been a long Olympic process. It's been a long year - so just a lot of different variables. And I think we're just a little bit too stressed out.

MCCAMMON: Joining us from Tokyo to talk about this is NPR's Mandalit del Barco, who's there covering the games. Hi, Mandalit.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Hello.

MCCAMMON: So tell us about Simone Biles. What does she and her team do now that she's pulled out of tomorrow's individual final?

DEL BARCO: Well, USA Gymnastics says it will continue to evaluate Simone Biles every day. You know, she's qualified and she could compete in next week's individual finals. But for now, her teammate Jade Carey will take her place in the all-around final. Now, Biles is not the only one talking about the stresses of performing at the Olympics. Today, swimmer Katie Ledecky won gold in the swimming event. The six-time Olympic champion broke down in tears. She told reporters that while she was competing, she choked up with every stroke thinking about her grandparents. Ledecky said she understands what - some of what Simone Biles is going through.

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KATIE LEDECKY: Certainly, Simone has so many eyes on her and, you know, the cameras follow you around. I experience it. And, you know, it - yeah, you can feel like every move you make is being watched and judged.

DEL BARCO: And, of course, all eyes have also been on Japanese tennis champ Naomi Osaka. She withdrew from two Grand Slam tournaments, citing depression and anxiety. She had the honor of lighting the Olympic cauldron during the opening ceremony, but she lost in the third round here at the Games.

MCCAMMON: As we've heard, Mandalit, there's been a flurry of discussion recently about mental health and elite sports. What is being done to help these athletes cope with stress at the Olympics?

DEL BARCO: Well, even before this week, the organizers of the game brought in mental health officers for the athletes and the coaches. There's now a 24/7 helpline for them. And at the Olympic Village where the athletes are staying, there are psychiatrists and psychologists. Team USA also has its own mental health specialist. I talked to Jess Bartley, the director of mental health services for Team USA.

JESS BARTLEY: You know, this has been really stressful with COVID and the protocols. We have a number of athletes who have been caught up either with COVID or contact tracing. I think just the protocols in general can be kind of isolating. It's a very different experience at the Games. But also, you know, you didn't compete as expected. Something's coming up at home and you're trying to balance performance as well as just life.

DEL BARCO: Now, Bartley says the U.S. team has a website filled with resources and an anonymous mental health support line and a 50-page manual for dealing with crises like panic attacks during the games. And they're also prepping athletes for post-Olympic blues and challenges.

MCCAMMON: Biles alluded to the fact that these Olympics are unusual. What are some of the other pressures the athletes are feeling right now?

DEL BARCO: Well, besides the pressure to be the best in the world at their sport, besides a global pandemic, there's also the fact that there are no spectators allowed to watch the games in person. There are no family members to hug them after they win, no friends or family to cheer them on. They have - some fans have been recording videos or TikTok and Instagram messages to the athletes, but it's just not the same as having those cheering fans here at the Olympics.

MCCAMMON: NPR's Mandalit del Barco in Tokyo, thank you so much.

DEL BARCO: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIGUILLE'S "DAY AND NIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.