By Joe Werkmeister
(Credit: Jo Zimny/Flickr)
In a major breakthrough in the long fight against COVID-19, fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear a mask when participating in either indoor or outdoor activities — whether large or small — or practice social distancing, according to the latest guidelines released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, M.D. announced the updated guidelines during a virtual briefing, citing the low risk of transmission, the universal access to the vaccine and its effectiveness against variants, and the low risk of serious symptoms for anyone who happens to still get COVID-19 after vaccination.
“If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing things you had stopped doing because of the pandemic,” Dr. Walensky said. “We have all longed for this moment when we can get back to some sense of normalcy.”
Anyone who is immunocompromised should seek the advice from their health care provider before deciding whether it’s safe to give up a mask, Dr. Walensky said.
There was no immediate update yet from state officials in New York, where a mask mandate has been in effect since last year. The CDC says local laws and workplace guidance can still require masks and people should follow those local laws and workplace guidance.
Certain facilities, such as health care settings, will continue to follow their specific infection control recommendations, she added. Masks are also required during air travel.
Dr. Walensky said fully vaccinated people can make the decision whether to wear a mask in certain situations “based on their own comfort” or there’s no issue with people deciding to be more cautious.
Unvaccinated people remain at risk of severe illness or death and can spread the virus and are encouraged to get vaccinated, the CDC director said. She urged those people to continue to follow mitigation practices that have been in place until they become fully vaccinated. People are fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving the second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or two weeks after the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
“This past year has shown us this virus can be unpredictable,” Dr. Walensky said. “So if things get worse, there is always a chance we may need to make a change to the recommendation.”
She cited recent studies showing the “real world effectiveness” of the vaccine as a factor in easing the mask guidelines. The vaccines have shown to be effective against the most common variants currently circulating in the United States, she said.
A study published April 2 found the vaccine to be 90% effective against any infection in about 4,000 health care workers. Another study published April 28 found the vaccine to be 94% effective against hospitalizations.
“This is an exciting and powerful moment,” Dr. Walensky said.
She added that the decision was based on following the science and not to serve as an incentive for people to now get vaccinated. She added that updated guidance for businesses, schools, camps and other settings is still to come.
“These decisions are going to have to be made at the local level,” Dr. Walensky said. “And I would encourage counties and localities to look at how much vaccine they have, how many people have been vaccinated, look at how many cases are in their area and to make those decisions with that information.”
The updated guidance comes about two weeks after the CDC had previously scaled back mask guidelines. Dr. Walensky said in that time, cases in the U.S. have dropped by one-third.
In New York, nearly 61% of adults have received at least one dose and 50.4% have completed the vaccine series, according to the state Department of Health. Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced early Thursday that children between 12 and 15 are eligible to receive the Pfizer vaccine, following the latest update from the CDC this week.
The seven-day positivity rate in Suffolk County dropped to 1.2%, according to the latest data released Wednesday. There were 119 new cases reported on Tuesday. More than half the county’s population has received at least one dose of the vaccine.