In news everyone has been waiting for since last year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said May 13 that people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 can ditch their masks, both indoors and outdoors, and stop social distancing as well.
It was welcome news, especially as politicians and many in the public have been criticizing the CDC for moving too slowly to update its guidelines as more people in the U.S.—over 35% as of today—have received a full course of vaccinations. In addition, while initial research only showed that vaccination prevented COVID-19 disease, recent data suggest that vaccinated people are also protected from getting infected with SARS-CoV-2—the virus that causes COVID-19—and are therefore also far less likely to spread it.
In a press briefing, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky cited the vaccination effort, the real-world data showing the shots are working, the dropping case counts in the U.S., and scientific evidence that the vaccines protect against worrisome variants that have emerged around the world as reasons for the updating the agency’s mask advice.
“If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing things you stopped doing because of the pandemic,” she said. “We have all longed for this moment when we can get back to some sense of normalcy. Based on the continuing downward trajectory of cases, the scientific data on the performance of our vaccines and the understanding of how the virus spreads, that moment has come for those who are fully vaccinated.”
There are still inconsistencies in the CDC guidance, however, that may cause confusion over coming days and weeks. For example, the CDC still requires passengers on planes, buses and trains to wear masks, regardless of their vaccination status. Walensky acknowledged the disconnect in the agency’s advice, saying “we are going to be looking at all of our guidance and updating all of our guidance—including travel—shortly, now that we have this new guidance out there.”
Walensky denied that the update was meant to incentivize more people to get vaccinated, given that rates have slowed in recent weeks. Instead, she said, it was based on “the science.”
“Several things happened in the last two weeks,” she added. “Cases have dropped by a third, and in the last two weeks, there is increasingly available vaccine, which is now available for people 12 to 15 years. And we have had the coalescence of more science that emerged and improved [our understanding] for three reasons—one, on the effectiveness of the vaccines, two, on the effectiveness of the vaccines against the variants, and three, the effectiveness of the vaccine in preventing transmissibility.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical advisor, noted at the briefing that if people who are fully vaccinated still feel more comfortable wearing masks in public settings, they should continue to do so.
“People have to make their own personal choice,” he said. “What Dr. Walensky described was the [new] recommendation that is based on science, and it’s just a recommendation. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the individual who has a certain level of risk aversion and doesn’t want to take even the very low risk of infection if they are vaccinated, and still wear a mask indoors or outdoors. There is nothing wrong with that, and they shouldn’t be criticized.”
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