In a sharp turn, federal health officials on Thursday indicated that Americans fully vaccinated against the coronavirus may no longer have to wear masks or maintain social distance in most indoor and outdoor areas, regardless of size.
The advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is welcome news for Americans who are tired of the restrictions and mark a turning point in the pandemic. Masks sparked controversy in communities across the United States, symbolizing a bitter party-political divide over approaches to the pandemic and a mark of political affiliation.
Permission to stop using them now provides an incentive for the many millions who are not yet vaccinated. As of Wednesday, about 154 million people had received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, but only about a third of the nation, about 117.6 million people, had been fully vaccinated. Individuals are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after a single shot by Johnson & Johnson or the second dose of the Pfizer BioNTech or Moderna series of vaccines.
The pace has slowed, however, with providers administering an average of 2.16 million doses per day, a 36 percent decrease from the high of 3.38 million in mid-April.
At the White House on Thursday, President Biden hailed the new recommendations as a “milestone” in the nation’s efforts to fight back the pandemic.
“Today is a great day for America,” said Biden during a speech in the rose garden where he and Vice President Kamala Harris appeared without a mask. “You have earned the right to do something Americans are known the world over for: greet others with a smile.”
The new council comes with reservations. Even vaccinated individuals have to cover their face and physical distance when going to doctors, hospitals, or long-term care facilities such as nursing homes. when traveling by bus, plane, train or other public transport or in transport hubs such as airports and bus stops; and when in prisons, jails, or homeless shelters.
At a press conference at the White House the day before, Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, the CDC director, said unexpected twists and turns in the pandemic could force the CDC to change the guidelines again. Fully vaccinated people who develop symptoms should continue to use masks and get tested, she said.
When asked how the new guidelines might apply to businesses and schools, she said the agency was working on issuing new recommendations for specific settings, including summer camps and travel, soon, which would be released shortly.
Out of consideration for local authorities, the CDC said vaccinated Americans must continue to abide by existing state, local, or tribal laws and regulations, and follow local business and workplace rules.
Still, the changes are likely to shake Americans who are no longer used to being exposed in public – or seeing others do so.
“We need to liberalize the restrictions so that people feel like they are back to normal,” said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the Biden government’s senior advisor on the pandemic, in an interview. “Pulling back restrictions on inner masks is an important step in the right direction.”
“You can’t stop people from doing the things they want to do. It’s one of the reasons they wanted to be vaccinated in the first place because other people aren’t getting vaccinated,” he added.
The move could sound the alarm to more cautious Americans, who may be more reluctant to engage in public activities as more people are exposed. There is no way of knowing who is and who is not vaccinated, and the majority of the population is not yet fully vaccinated. Dr. Walensky added that immunocompromised people who have been fully vaccinated should consult their doctor before foregoing a face mask.
“For those who are risk averse, the option is to continue wearing it if you wish,” said Dr. Fauci.
At the White House press conference, Dr. Fauci the Americans who, after more than a year of the pandemic, may still be getting used to a new normal of not being confident if they don’t immediately give up masks.
“There is absolutely nothing wrong with a person who has some level of risk aversion,” he said. “You shouldn’t be criticized.”
Dr. Walensky defended the timing of the new mask lead, pointing to a sharp drop in coronavirus cases, which have fallen by about a third in the past two weeks, and a continued increase in vaccine supply.
The new recommendations came just two days after Senate Republicans broke into the CDC for providing outdated and overly conservative guidelines on how to wear masks, and during a pandemic hearing, the agency accused the government of trusting Americans to lose those who want to go back to normal life.
Agency officials pointed to several recent studies showing vaccines are more than 90 percent effective at preventing in-practice mild and serious illness, hospitalization and deaths from Covid-19.
Among them was a study of 6,710 healthcare workers in Israel, including 5,517 fully vaccinated workers, which found that Pfizer vaccine was 97 percent effective in symptomatic infections in those who were fully vaccinated and 86 percent effective in preventing asymptomatic infections . (However, vaccination rates in Israel are far higher than in the US.)
The CDC also stressed that the vaccines used have also been shown to be effective against variants of the coronavirus circulating in the United States.
The CDC recently came under fire for acting too cautiously to lift restrictions on public activities for those who are vaccinated. Some critics said the agency’s caution could suggest Americans that officials have no confidence in the vaccines.
Angela Rasmussen, a virologist with the Vaccines and Infectious Disease Organization in Saskatchewan, Canada, can help convince more people to choose the vaccine. Removing mask requirements “is another incentive that is extremely inexpensive and very much supported by evidence.”
Though the CDC has historically been one of the most trusted health agencies in the world, public confidence in its recommendations fell short and did not fully recover during the Trump administration, which tried to muzzle government experts and change the agency’s advice .
Only half of Americans said they had “a great deal” of trust in the CDC, according to a new survey conducted in February and March by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.