A soldier looks out of the loading ramp of a C-27 aircraft while he and his fellow soldiers wear face masks and maintain social distance.

A soldier looks out of the loading ramp of a C-27 aircraft while he and his fellow soldiers wear face masks and maintain social distance. (Jose Rodriguez/U.S. Army)

The Pentagon on Wednesday announced it would once again require all individuals to wear face coverings when indoors at Defense Department facilities in locations deemed high risk by federal health officials for the spread of coronavirus.

The directive from Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks on Wednesday walks back guidance issued in May that allowed service members and others who had been fully vaccinated against the virus to forgo mask-wearing at Defense Department facilities worldwide. It comes one day after the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance encouraging vaccinated Americans to don masks indoors in certain locations where the coronavirus is spreading rapidly.

“Deputy Secretary Hicks has directed that all individuals, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks in indoor settings at Department of Defense installations and facilities in areas of substantial or high transmission, as defined by the CDC, to protect against rising [coronavirus] cases,” said Jamal Brown, a Pentagon spokesman. “[Wednesday’s] announcement applies to all service members, federal personnel, contractors, and visitors when indoors at all properties owned by the department in those areas, in accordance with updated CDC guidelines.”

The Defense Department change on mask requirements came just one day before President Joe Biden was expected to issue new rules for federal employees, potentially including military troops, related to the virus as infection rates increase and the White House pushes for more eligible Americans to get vaccinated.

The president has placed blame on unvaccinated adults for increasing transmission rates primarily with the highly infectious delta variant of the coronavirus.

"The pandemic we have now is a pandemic of the unvaccinated," Biden said Wednesday, urging unvaccinated Americans to “please, please, please” get their shots.

Biden was expected to announce Thursday afternoon that most federal employees show proof that they had been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus or agree to regular testing, stringent social distancing requirements, masking up and restrictions on their travel, The Associated Press reported, citing an unnamed administration official. The official said those who chose not to get vaccinated would not be at risk of losing their jobs.

AP reported it was not clear ahead of Biden’s announcement if he would lump active-duty military troops and federal contract workers into the new requirements.

Pentagon data updated on Wednesday showed about 48% of the military’s total active-duty, National Guard and Reserve force — or 1,027,730 service members — had been fully vaccinated. Another 233,565 troops were partially vaccinated, according to the data. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced July 16 that more than 70% of the active-duty force had been at least partially vaccinated, but the Pentagon has not provided updated data on active-duty troops since then.

The U.S. military has reported 208,603 troops have tested positive for the virus since the pandemic began. Pentagon data released Wednesday showed more than 5,000 active cases. Twenty-eight service members have died from complications of the virus.

The White House official said new rules were meant to encourage an increase in vaccination rates in the country, setting an example for employers to set their own get-vaccinated or tested regularly policies, the AP reported.

Regardless, federal officials want unvaccinated and vaccinated individuals to return to mask-wearing indoors in those locations deemed by the CDC to have substantial or high coronavirus transmission rates.

The CDC has defined those areas of the country, broken down by individual county, as displaying substantial coronavirus transmission rates if more than 50 cases per 100,000 persons were reported in the previous seven days. Those reporting more than 100 cases per 100,000 persons are deemed to have high transmission rates. On Wednesday, the CDC reported 1,608 of 3,219 U.S. counties fell into the high transmission rate category. Another 537 were listed within the substantial transmission rate category.

A CDC map of county statuses showed high or substantial transmission across most of the U.S. southeast, where vaccination rates trail other parts of the country. But at least some counties reporting significant or high rates of infection appeared to be present in all 50 states. Updated information on local transmission rates and other coronavirus-related data is available online.

In the Defense Department memorandum announcing the changes on Wednesday, Hicks said military installations and other DOD facilities should post signs at their locations and information on their websites outlining current guidance, including whether fully vaccinated individuals must wear masks indoors in that location “as soon as possible.”

Defense Department personnel who do not comply with current orders regarding face masks could be punished, defense officials have said.

Hicks directed service members and DOD civilian employees to “continue to comply with CDC guidance regarding areas where masks should be worn, including within airports.”

The change comes as federal health officials expressed increasing concerns about the highly transmissible delta variant of the virus spreading throughout the country and increasing hospitalization rates in many areas of the United States.

While CDC officials and Biden have said in recent days that the vast majority of cases, about 90%, have spread among those not vaccinated against the coronavirus, officials have warned they have seen more so-called breakthrough cases of the virus infecting fully vaccinated individuals.

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said breakthrough infections remain rare and the “vaccines work just as we thought they would.” However, where health officials once thought vaccinated individuals were unlikely to spread the disease, new data shows they can spread the new variant to others, she said.

“With the delta variant, we can now see in outbreak investigations in these recent weeks … that you can actually now pass it to someone else,” Walensky said Wednesday on CNN. "For every 20 [fully vaccinated] people, one or two of them could get a breakthrough, they may only get mild disease, but we wanted them to know they could bring that mild disease home, they could bring it to others.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs on Monday announced it would require its medical workers to receive coronavirus vaccines. The department, the first federal agency to mandate vaccination for any of its personnel, gave employees until Sept. 20 to be fully vaccinated.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Corey Dickstein covers the military in the U.S. southeast. He joined the Stars and Stripes staff in 2015 and covered the Pentagon for more than five years. He previously covered the military for the Savannah Morning News in Georgia. Dickstein holds a journalism degree from Georgia College & State University and has been recognized with several national and regional awards for his reporting and photography. He is based in Atlanta.

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