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Fully Vaccinated People Do Not Need to Wear Masks in Most Settings, CDC Says

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its guidance, saying people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 do not need to wear masks or facial coverings in most settings.

“We have all longed for this moment,” said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky in a press conference announcing the new guidance. “If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic.”

In an interview with PBS News Hour, Walensky said the decision to update the CDC’s guidance came after a drop in COVID-19 cases in the United States and new data that demonstrates the effectiveness of vaccines. 

Vaccine “effectiveness in real-world settings outside of the trial, outside of our trials, has demonstrated that it works just as well as it did in the trials, that these vaccines are working against variants and that, if you are vaccinated, you’re very unlikely to be able to get asymptomatic disease, and, therefore, transmit it to other people,” Walensky explained. “So, the science sort of all coalesced at the same time. And then, finally, we’re at a place in this country right now where everyone is eligible to get a vaccine if you’re over the age of 12. And it’s available. We, fortunately, have supply right now that it’s available to everyone who is eligible.”

The CDC’s guidance does not override state and local mask orders, and it still recommends that fully vaccinated individuals wear masks when flying, using public transportation, visiting healthcare facilities, or in prisons and homeless shelters.

The U.S. federal government mandates masks be worn on airplanes through 13 September. Director of the National Institutes of Health Dr. Francis Collins told CNN that the requirement makes sense because people are sitting close together for extended periods of time while in transit.

“In circumstances where people are packed close together and you don’t know the status of immunization of everybody, it is still the better part of being cautious to wear masks on those planes and trains and buses,” Collins said. “Once we get further along with an even higher degree of immunization, and the viral infections—which are still 30,000 a day—really continue to drop down, we’ll be able to relax those as well.”

The new guidance also did not address whether masks should be worn in schools or what vaccinated individuals who have unvaccinated children should do. The Pfizer vaccine has been approved for children 12 to 15, but a recent poll found that some families were hesitant to have their children vaccinated.

“Nearly a quarter said they would definitely not vaccinate their children, while a quarter remained undecided,” according to NPR’s analysis of the KFF COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor survey. “Another 18 percent said they would allow their child to be vaccinated if schools require it, and just 30 percent of caregivers said their children would get the shot as soon as possible.” 

Schools are also determining what the CDC’s new mask guidance means for classes currently in session and reopening plans for the fall semester. The superintendent of schools in Cobb County, Georgia, said that the district would not require fully vaccinated people to wear masks while in district facilities but that anyone who wished to continue wearing a mask could do so.

The change in guidance was welcomed by many health experts, but there was some criticism because it will place new stress on organizations and individuals to determine who is vaccinated and who is not. The vaccination card system in place in the United States can easily be spoofed, and counterfeit cards have popped up for sale online.

The inability to determine vaccination status could also make some employees uncomfortable about returning to work, especially if other COVID-19 mitigation measures are not in place.

“As employers are formulating return-to-work policies, many employees are expressing that they are nervous about coming back in person,” wrote Leana Wen, visiting professor at George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, in an editorial for The Washington Post. “What reassures them is if the workplace continues to abide by mitigation measures such as masking and distancing, or, in its place, the employer requires vaccination. Imagine, if you will, now being scheduled to come into an office where vaccination isn’t checked and masking is, therefore, optional.”

While the pandemic may be slowing in the United States, cases are rising in other parts of the world—especially in India where confirmed cases passed the 24 million mark and 4,000 people died in a single day from the disease.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the country is “on a war footing” to attempt to contain the spread of the highly transmissible B.1.617 variant, according to Reuters.

“The outbreak is reaching rural areas with great speed,” he said. “All departments of the government, all resources, our armed forces, our scientists, everyone is working day and night to counter COVID, together.”