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While mandates to wear masks were an adjustment for many people in the U.S. in the spring of 2020, face coverings eventually became a regular part of our daily lives over the past year. So when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that it was no longer recommending masks for fully vaccinated people in mid-May, it came as a bit of shock. Many people criticized the CDC and its director, Rochelle Walensky, MD, for the sudden shift with no warning. And now, nearly a month later, White House COVID chief adviser Anthony Fauci, MD, who has worked hand-in-hand with the CDC on mask guidance, is admitting that he thinks some mistakes were made in terms of the CDC's latest change.
Walensky announced the major shift in the CDC's mask guidelines on May 13 during a White House COVID-19 response team press briefing. "We have all longed for this moment when we can get back to some sense of normalcy. Based on the continuing downward trajectory of cases, the scientific data on the performance of our vaccines, and our understanding of how the virus spreads, that moment has come for those who are fully vaccinated," Walensky said at the time.
Fauci recently told The New York Times in a June 10 feature on Walensky that he believes the CDC's announcement on lifting mask mandates was somewhat mishandled. "Retrospectively, when you look at the negative reaction of so many people, so many organizations, you have to come to the conclusion that it could have been done better," Fauci said. "There'll be a lesson learned here."
After the news broke, many people felt as if the CDC's announcement to end its recommendation to use masks was rushed. Even the White House got less than a day's notice before the announcement was made. "The CDC, the doctors and medical experts there, are the ones who determined what this guidance would be based on their own data, and what the timeline would be. That was not a decision directed by or made by the White House," Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, said during a news briefing on May 14, per The Times.
Others pointed out that the revised guidance did not consider parts of the country where infections were still high. "CDC seems to have gone from one extreme of over-caution to another of basically throwing caution out the window," Leana Wen, MD, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University, told NPR on May 14. Two days later, Walensky told Fox News' Chris Wallace during a May 16 interview: "I want to make sure everybody understands … we're not a homogeneous country. There are some places that have more disease than others and less vaccination rates than others, and what I would say is in those communities, they should still be looking within those communities before removing mask policies."
On top of that, there was also concern about abuse of the CDC's guideline change. The new recommendations said fully vaccinated individuals could stop wearing masks indoors and outdoors in most settings. But most businesses said they'd be using the honor system, potentially allowing unvaccinated individuals to remove their masks as well since most places are not checking vaccination cards, which could be falsified anyway.
"CDC got the medical and epidemiological science right, but what they did not get right was the behavioral science, the communications and working collaboratively with other stakeholders," Celine Gounder, MD, a former adviser to President Joe Biden's COVID team, told The Times. "That was a big oversight."
When contacted by The Times, the CDC and Walensky declined to comment on how the mask recommendations were handled. But since the original announcement, the agency has gone on to issue more mask guidance regarding particular settings. For instance, the CDC has since updated mask requirements for summer camps in favor of non-masking but still requires them for all people using public transportation, even if they're fully vaccinated.
Despite the sentiment that the CDC's mask guideline change was abrupt, data backs Walensky and the CDC's decision. According to a May report from CNN, the number of visits to vaccines.gov, a website where people look up vaccination sites by zip code, skyrocketed just a few hours after Walensky's announcement. And COVID numbers have continued to go down since the shift, too. Over the last two weeks, cases have decreased by 36 percent, hospitalizations have gone down 22 percent, and deaths have dropped by 20 percent, per data from The Times.