The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new guidelines easing outdoor masking recommendations for fully vaccinated people may lead to some unintended consequences, particularly for people of color, health experts say.
The agency announced the recommendations Tuesday, as growing evidence shows the risk of infection outside is very low, particularly for those who are fully vaccinated. Health officials used the announcement as another opportunity to encourage vaccinations by providing tangible benefits to those who have gotten their shots.
“The bottom line is clear. If you’re vaccinated, you can do more things more safely both outdoors as well as indoors,” President Joe Biden said in a White House briefing Tuesday. “For those who haven’t gotten their vaccination yet ... this is another great reason to go and get vaccinated now.”
The science supports the agency’s new guidelines, but experts say easing mask restrictions may imply that vaccination is now just a matter of choice, and it could undermine urgency to reach vulnerable communities still awaiting access to vaccines.
“The changing perception that these are not issues means that the attention to these populations will likely decrease,” said Rachael Piltch-Loeb, associate research scientist at New York University School of Global Public Health and a preparedness fellow at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
“The reality is that these resources are still needed, and we can’t let down. We shouldn’t give up the effort to reach these communities."
Some states already have begun relaxing restrictions.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee announced Tuesday on Twitter that he was removing the authority from local officials to implement mask mandates and won’t be renewing any public health orders because “COVID-19 is no longer a health emergency in our state.”
But many people across the country remain unvaccinated because they don’t have access to the internet, work more than one job, don’t speak English, experience homelessness, live in rural areas or have chronic health problems, said Kiran Savage-Sangwan, executive director of the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network. All are conditions that studies show disproportionately affect people of color.
As of April 29, only 5.7 million Latinos and 4.8 million Black Americans were fully vaccinated compared with more than 39 million white Americans, according to CDC data for which race and ethnicity information was available for about 57 million fully vaccinated people.
In California, Blacks and Latinos are vaccinated at half the rate they should be given their population in the state, Savage-Sangwan said, and it’s not because of vaccine hesitancy.
“When we’ve broken down those access barriers, we’ve seen people lining up to get the vaccine,” she said. “The data is very clear that we continue to have very significant gaps, particularly in communities of color. The data is very clear that we have work to do.”
But lifting mask mandates and other restrictions based on recommendations for fully vaccinated people may suggest that the work is done, Piltch-Loeb said.
“It’s fantastic that we recognize that there are safer and less risky activities, but everybody should have the opportunity to be able to participate in those less risky activities,” Piltch-Loeb said. “And that opportunity is not equal if you do not have equal access to the vaccine.”
Follow Adrianna Rodriguez on Twitter: @AdriannaUSAT.
Health and patient safety coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Masimo Foundation for Ethics, Innovation and Competition in Healthcare. The Masimo Foundation does not provide editorial input.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: CDC COVID mask guidelines after vaccination may affect people of color