WASHINGTON (CBS SF/AP) — In a move to send the country back toward pre-pandemic life, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday eased indoor mask-wearing guidance for fully vaccinated people, allowing them to safely stop wearing masks inside in most places.
Masks are currently required indoors in California and the Bay Area, and the new guidelines from the CDC follow increasing pressure to relax indoor masking mandates for highly vaccinated cities, such as San Francisco.READ MORE: UPDATE: 1 Dead, 5 Wounded in Saturday Evening Shooting at Oakland's Lake Merritt
The new guidance announced Thursday still calls for wearing masks in crowded indoor settings like buses, planes, hospitals, prisons and homeless shelters, but will help clear the way for reopening workplaces, schools, and other venues — even removing the need for masks or social distancing for those who are fully vaccinated.
The CDC’s announcement that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks in certain indoor settings is great news because it further underscores the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccine in driving down cases and preventing community spread. (1/4)
— SFDPH (@SF_DPH) May 13, 2021
“We have all longed for this moment — when we can get back to some sense of normalcy,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the CDC.
The CDC will also no longer recommend that fully vaccinated people wear masks outdoors in crowds. The announcement comes as the CDC and the Biden administration have faced pressure to ease restrictions on fully vaccinated people — people who are two weeks past their last required COVID-19 vaccine dose — in part to highlight the benefits of getting the shot.
Walensky announced the new guidance on Thursday afternoon at a White House briefing, saying the long-awaited change is thanks to millions of people getting vaccinated — and based on the latest science about how well those shots are working.
“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 comes as the aggressive U.S. vaccination campaign begins to pay off. U.S. virus cases are at their lowest rate since September, deaths are at their lowest point since last April and the test positivity rate is at the lowest point since the pandemic began.
“You look at San Francisco, 20 cases a day, more than 70 percent of the population vaccinated. Very good testing in place. They don’t need mask ordinances indoors anymore and certainly not outside,” said former head of the Food and Drug Administration Dr. Scott Gottlieb earlier this week.
Dr. Monica Gandhi of UCSF told KPIX 5 that she was surprised by Thursday’s announcement, but calls the move prudent.READ MORE: UPDATE: PG&E Restores Power To More Than 50,000 East Bay Customers
“I can completely see it by the biology and what I mean by that is that vaccines are profoundly effective. They protect you as the vaccinated individual and importantly, they protect someone next to you,” said Gandhi.
While the CDC has updated its guidance, the California Department of Public Health has not and neither have counties as of Thursday. Patrons who are in a business must still adhere to the establishment’s rules.
“Right now, the businesses asking for that, as you say, we have to be completely respectful of what businesses have established as their rules because no one in a business should be in the position of enforcing that,” Gandhi said.
To date about 154 million Americans, more than 46% of the population, have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccines and more than 117 million are fully vaccinated. The rate of new vaccinations has slowed in recent weeks, but with the authorization Wednesday of the Pfizer vaccine for children ages 12 to 15, a new burst of doses is expected in the coming days.
Just two weeks ago, the CDC recommended that fully vaccinated people continue to wear masks indoors in all settings and outdoors in large crowds.
During a virtual meeting Tuesday on vaccinations with a bipartisan group of governors, President Joe Biden appeared to acknowledge that his administration had to do more to model the benefits of vaccination.
“I would like to say that we have fully vaccinated people; we should start acting like it,” Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican, told Biden. “And that’s a big motivation get the unvaccinated to want to get vaccinated.”
“Good point,” Biden responded. He added, “We’re going to be moving on that in the next little bit.”
The easing guidance could open the door to confusion, as there is no surefire way for businesses or others to distinguish between those fully vaccinated and those who are not.
Walensky said the evidence from the U.S. and Israel shows the vaccines are as strongly protective in real-world use as they were in earlier studies, and that so far they continue to work even though some worrying mutated versions of the virus are spreading.
The more people continue to get vaccinated, the faster infections will drop — and the harder it will be for the virus to mutate enough to escape vaccines, she stressed, urging everyone 12 and older who’s not yet vaccinated to sign up.
And while some people still get COVID-19 despite vaccination, Walensky said that’s rare and cited evidence that those infections tend to be milder, shorter and harder to spread to others. If someone who’s vaccinated does develop COVID-19 symptoms, they should immediately put their mask back on and get tested, she said.MORE NEWS: Fire at San Francisco Tenderloin Apartments Injures 15; Dozens Saved by Occupants' Heroism
There are some caveats. Walensky encouraged people who have weak immune systems, such as from organ transplants or cancer treatment, to talk with their doctors before shedding their masks. That’s because of continued uncertainty about whether the vaccines can rev up a weakened immune system as well as they do normal, healthy ones.