On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxed mask-wearing guidelines for completely vaccinated individuals, encouraging them to avoid wearing masks outside in crowds and in most indoor environments.
“Today is a great day for America,” President Joe Biden said during a Rose Garden speech announcing the new policy, which he and his team attended without masks. When the advice was released, Biden led the party in removing their masks in the Oval Office, where he was speaking with vaccinated Republican lawmakers.
“If you are fully vaccinated, you no longer need to wear a mask,” he said, summarizing the new guidance and encouraging more Americans to roll up their sleeves. “Get vaccinated — or wear a mask until you do.”
The guidance still calls for wearing masks in crowded indoor settings like buses, planes, hospitals, prisons and homeless shelters, but it will help clear the way for reopening workplaces, schools and other venues — even removing the need for social distancing for those who are fully vaccinated.
“We have all longed for this moment — when we can get back to some sense of normalcy,” Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, said at an earlier White House briefing.
Big news from the CDC: If you’re fully vaccinated, you do not need to wear a mask – indoors or outdoors, in most settings.
We’ve gotten this far. Whether you choose to get vaccinated or wear a mask, please protect yourself until we get to the finish line. pic.twitter.com/XI4yPmhWaD
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) May 13, 2021
The CDC and the Biden administration have been under pressure to relax limits on fully vaccinated individuals — those who are two weeks past their last mandatory COVID-19 vaccination dosage — in order to demonstrate the advantages of receiving the injection. The country’s ambitious vaccine policy has paid off: virus cases in the United States are at their lowest since September, casualties are at their lowest since April, and the test positivity rate is at its lowest since the pandemic started.
According to Walensky, the long-awaited move is due to the millions of people that have been vaccinated and is focused on the most recent science about how well those shots function.
“Anyone who is fully vaccinated can participate in indoor and outdoor activities — large or small — without wearing a mask or physically distancing,” Walensky said. “If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic.”
The new guidance is likely to open the door to confusion, since there is no surefire way for businesses or others to distinguish between those who are fully vaccinated and those who are not.
“Millions of Americans are doing the right thing and getting vaccinated, but essential workers are still forced to play mask police for shoppers who are unvaccinated and refuse to follow local COVID safety measures,” said Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. “Are they now supposed to become the vaccination police?”
Walensky and Biden said people who are not fully vaccinated should continue to wear masks indoors.
“We’ve gotten this far — please protect yourself until you get to the finish line,” Biden said, noting that most Americans under 65 are not yet fully vaccinated. He said the government was not going to enforce the mask wearing guidance on those not yet fully vaccinated.
“We’re not going to go out and arrest people,” added Biden, who said he believes the American people want to take care of their neighbors. “If you haven’t been vaccinated, wear your mask for your own protection and the protection of the people who also have not been vaccinated yet.”
On Capitol Hill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she is not changing the rules requiring masks on the House floor.
“No,” Pelosi told CNN. “Are they all vaccinated?”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi told me “no” she isn’t changing the rule requiring masks on the House floor.
“No,” Pelosi said. “Are they all vaccinated?”
— Manu Raju (@mkraju) May 13, 2021
Recent estimates have put the percentage of unvaccinated lawmakers in the House at 25%.
That ambiguity over who is and isn’t vaccinated led Lawrence Gostin, a public health law expert at Georgetown University, to declare the CDC guidance “confusing and contradictory.”
“The public will not feel comfortable in a crowded indoor space if they are unsure if the maskless person standing next to them is or is not vaccinated,” he said.
The statement comes when many states and cities have already lifted mask mandates in response to declining viral levels, and as more Americans have begun to remove face masks since receiving vaccinations.
Dan Witte, a 67-year-old guitarist from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, started wearing a mask two months ago after getting the vaccine and has recently rejoined his band, performing at packed bars and weddings. He was pleased by the CDC’s new guidelines, but he said it only reinforced his belief that the vaccines provided protection against the spread of pathogens.
“I went right from being hypervigilant for almost a year to being right in the crowd without a mask,” Witte said.
To date more than 154 million Americans, nearly 47% of the population, have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, and nearly 119 million are fully vaccinated. The rate of new vaccinations has slowed in recent weeks, but with the authorization Wednesday of the Pfizer shot for children ages 12 to 15, a new burst of doses is expected in the coming days.
“All of us, let’s be patient, be patient with one another,” Biden said, acknowledging some Americans might be hesitant about removing their masks after more than a year of living in a pandemic that has killed more than 584,000 people in the U.S. and more than 3.3 million people worldwide.
The CDC’s announcement that Americans could begin to shed one of the most visible symbols of the pandemic stood in stark contrast to other nations, with much of the world still struggling to contain the virus amid global disparities in vaccinations.
About two weeks earlier, the CDC advised completely vaccinated citizens to avoid wearing masks indoors and outside in big crowds.
Walensky stated that data from the United States and Israel suggests that the vaccines are as effective in real-world use as they were in earlier trials, and that they have so far continued to function through the proliferation of some concerning mutated variants of the virus.
The more individuals who get vaccinated, the easier viruses will fall — and the more difficult it will be for the virus to mutate enough to survive vaccination, she emphasised, advising everyone aged 12 and up who has not yet been vaccinated to do so.
And while some people still get COVID-19 despite being vaccinated, Walensky said, that’s rare. She cited evidence that those infections tend to be milder, shorter and harder to spread to others. If people who are vaccinated do develop COVID-19 symptoms, they should immediately put their mask back on and get tested, she said.
There are certain limitations. Walensky advised patients with weakened immune systems, such as those with organ transplants or cancer therapy, to consult their physicians before removing their masks. This is due to ongoing controversy about whether vaccinations will stimulate a compromised immune system as well as a normal, stable one.
The latest advice had an immediate impact at the White House, which has been hesitant about loosening virus controls. Masks are no longer available for people who are completely vaccinated, according to staff.
First lady Jill Biden, who was traveling in West Virginia, told reporters that “we feel naked” as she and her party removed their face coverings. Then she paused. “I didn’t mean it that way!”