WASHINGTON (AP) – In an important step towards a return to pre-pandemic life, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have simplified mask wearing instructions for fully vaccinated people, making it easier for them to wear masks outdoors in crowds and in most indoor spaces.
“Today is a great day for America,” said President Joe Biden Thursday during a Rose Garden address announcing the new leadership, an event where he and his staff went without masks. Hours earlier in the Oval Office, where Biden was meeting with vaccinated Republican lawmakers, he was leading the group in removing their masks when the instructions were announced.
“When you are fully vaccinated, you no longer have to wear a mask,” he summarized the new guidelines, encouraging more Americans to roll up their sleeves. “Get vaccinated – or wear a mask until you do.”
The guidelines continue to require the wearing of masks in crowded indoor spaces such as buses, airplanes, hospitals, prisons and shelters for the homeless. However, they will help pave the way for jobs, schools, and other venues to reopen – and even eliminate the need for social distancing for those who are fully vaccinated.
“We have all longed for this moment – when we can get back to a sense of normalcy,” said Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, at an earlier briefing at the White House.
In light of CDC guidance, the Pentagon announced on Friday that fully vaccinated Department of Defense personnel will no longer need to wear masks indoors or outdoors in defense facilities.
The CDC and the Biden administration have come under pressure to relax restrictions on fully vaccinated individuals – those who are two weeks after their last required COVID-19 vaccine dose – in part to highlight the benefits of vaccination. The country’s aggressive vaccination campaign has paid off: US virus cases are lowest since September, deaths lowest since last April, and test positivity rate lowest since the pandemic began.
Walensky said the long-awaited change was thanks to the millions of people who were vaccinated and is based on the latest science on how well these recordings work.
“Anyone who is fully vaccinated can participate in indoor and outdoor activities, large and small, without wearing a mask or physically distancing themselves,” said Walensky. “When you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things you stopped doing because of the pandemic.”
The new guidelines are likely to open the door to confusion as there is no surefire way for businesses or others to differentiate between fully vaccinated and unvaccinated people.
“Millions of Americans are doing the right thing and getting vaccinated, but key workers are still being forced to play masked police for shoppers who are not vaccinated and who refuse to follow local COVID safety measures,” said Marc Perrone, president of United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. “Shall you become the vaccination police now?”
Walensky and Biden said people who are not fully vaccinated should continue to wear masks indoors.
“We’ve come this far – please protect yourself until you reach the finish line,” Biden said, noting that most Americans under 65 aren’t fully vaccinated yet. He said the government will not enforce the guidelines mask for those who are 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 for the protection of those who haven’t been vaccinated either.”
On Capitol Hill, house spokeswoman Nancy Pelosi said she was not changing the rules for masks on the floor of the house.
“No,” Pelosi told CNN. “Are you all vaccinated?”
Recent estimates put the percentage of unvaccinated lawmakers in the home at 25%.
This ambiguity about who is and who is not vaccinated led Lawrence Gostin, a public health law expert at Georgetown University, to declare the CDC guidelines “confusing and contradicting”.
“The public will not be comfortable in a crowded indoor space if they are unsure whether the maskless person standing next to them is vaccinated or not,” he said.
The announcement came because many states and communities have already lifted mask mandates to improve virus counts and because more Americans have removed face covers after being shot.
Dan Witte, a 67-year-old musician from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, stopped wearing a mask two months ago after receiving the vaccine and has recently returned to his band to play concerts in crowded bars and weddings. He was encouraged by the CDC’s new guidelines, but said it only confirms his confidence that the vaccines will protect against the spread of infection.
“For almost a year I was no longer hypervigilant, but in the crowd without a mask,” said Witte.
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 approval of the Pfizer shot for children ages 12-15 on Wednesday, a new dose surge is expected in the coming days.
“All of us, let’s be patient, let’s be patient with one another,” Biden said, admitting that some Americans may be reluctant to remove their masks after living in a pandemic that left more than 584,000 people in for more than a year The United States and the United States have killed more than 3.3 million people worldwide.
The CDC’s announcement that Americans could begin to lose one of the most visible symbols of the pandemic was in stark contrast to other nations, and much of the world was still struggling to contain the virus amid global vaccination differences.
Just two weeks ago, the CDC recommended that fully vaccinated people should continue to wear masks indoors in all settings and outdoors in large crowds.
Walensky said evidence from the US and Israel shows that the vaccines are as protective in practice as in previous studies, and that they continue to work even though some worrying mutated versions of the virus are spreading.
The more people who continue to be vaccinated, the faster the infections will drop – and the harder it will be for the virus to mutate enough to escape vaccines, she stressed, urging all 12-year-olds and older who are not yet vaccinated to log in.
And while some people still get COVID-19 despite being vaccinated, Walensky said, that’s rare. She cited evidence that these infections tend to be milder, shorter, and harder to spread to others. If vaccinated people develop COVID-19 symptoms, they should put their mask back on and get tested right away, she said.
There are some limitations. Walensky encouraged people with weak immune systems, such as: For example, organ transplants or cancer treatments, speak to their doctors before they take off their masks. This is due to the ongoing uncertainty about whether the vaccines can revive a weakened immune system, as well as normal, healthy ones.
The new guidelines had an immediate impact on the White House, which has acted cautiously to ease virus restrictions. Staff have been informed that those who are fully vaccinated will no longer require masks.
First Lady Jill Biden, who was traveling in West Virginia, told reporters that “we feel naked” when she and her group removed their face covers. Then she paused. “I did not mean that!”
Lauran Neergaard, AP Medical Writer, and Lisa Mascaro, AP Congressional correspondent, contributed to this report.