Is it really safe to ditch masks if fully vaccinated? Experts split on new CDC guidance

·6 min read

Fully vaccinated Americans can now shed their masks in all outdoor and most indoor situations.

The updated guidance released Thursday has some experts relieved and excited for a quicker return to normal, while others worry the change was rushed, leaving businesses and people with vulnerable immune systems more problems to deal with.

Just two weeks ago, the CDC advised fully vaccinated people they don’t have to wear masks outdoors, except while in crowded settings and venues, but should keep them on indoors in most cases.

“You can start doing the things you had stopped doing because of the pandemic,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Thursday during a White House COVID-19 briefing. “This is an exciting moment.”

The agency cited several studies that show the vaccines are exceptional at helping prevent both symptomatic and asymptomatic infections, as well as deaths and hospitalizations. More recent research shows the vaccines are also effective against circulating coronavirus variants that are more contagious than the original strain that emerged from Wuhan, China, about December 2019.

But scientific experts appear to be split on whether the switch on public health messaging is something to applaud or criticize.

Many support the CDC’s updated mask guidance

Many scientists and doctors have welcomed the new guidance with open arms, and some say they would’ve embraced it sooner.

“Why did it take [the CDC] till May 13 to recommend the vaccinated be liberated? Because it was unclear if vaccines protect against transmission — not just harboring the virus in your nose — but spreading it,” Dr. Eric Topol, physician-scientist and founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in California, wrote in a tweet. “It’s abundantly clear now, at least w/ mRNA vaccines, that transmission is rare.”

Topol calls it a “3-fer,” saying the decision is backed by science, an incentive for more Americans to get vaccinated and a “big step towards pre-covid life.”

Dr. Carlos del Rio, Executive Associate Dean of the Emory School of Medicine in Georgia, agrees.

“Science advances slowly but the data is clear now, it is extremely rare to get infected once fully vaccinated and, even if infected, the viral load in the nose is so low that transmission is unlikely,” del Rio said in a tweet.

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A new CDC study published Friday revealed that the Pfizer and Moderna coronavirus vaccines reduced the risk of getting COVID-19 with symptoms by 94% and 82% among health care workers in 25 states who were fully and partially vaccinated, respectively.

“These vaccines are an absolute miracle of modern medicine,” Boston’s Tufts Medical Center epidemiologist Dr. Shira Doron told WBZ. “We can feel comfortable doing pretty much everything we used to do [once vaccinated],” adding that the guidance is based on scientific data.

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Doron said there are going to be people who pretend they’re vaccinated just to ditch their masks while indoors, but “they’re not posing a risk to the vaccinated people ... that’s really [their] choice. You’re only putting yourself at risk,” she told the outlet.

And the greater the rate of transmission in communities, the greater the risk of infection, experts say.

“Would I go to a modest dinner party with vaccinated friends? Absolutely. But walking into a bar in a poorly vaccinated state, or walking into a large gathering of people — I would be uncomfortable doing that without a mask,” Dr. John Moore, a virologist at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York, told The New York Times. “It’s going to take a lot of adjustment, but I think it’s a good idea, and appropriate on the science.”

Some support the change but remain skeptical; others don’t agree

Experts who appear to be against the CDC’s new mask guidance for fully vaccinated people are not concerned about the science, but rather what businesses and people left unprotected by the vaccines might face.

Dr. Saskia Popescu, an epidemiologist at George Mason University, told BuzzFeed she supports the science-based move by the CDC, but worries about how the change will be implemented.

“I’m always grateful to see evolving guidance that encourages people to make safer decisions, in this case vaccinations. In theory, it’s really, really great,” Popescu told the outlet. “But I think the realities of it are going to make it a bit challenging. … How are [businesses] going to handle it when they don’t know [a customer’s] vaccination status?”

“I wish we would’ve been able to get more than 35% of the U.S. fully vaccinated before we went down this route,” she added.

As of May 13, more than 120.2 million Americans are fully vaccinated, about 36% of the population, according to a CDC tracker.

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Dr. Caitlin Rivers, another infectious disease epidemiologist, said she “would have preferred to see the new policy tied to incidence, e.g. <5 cases per 100,000 per day” because children and others, like those who are immunocompromised, depend on community mitigation for their safety.

People who work in grocery stores, meat packing plants and other essential jobs also face considerable risks now that there’s no formal way to check for vaccination status.

“While we all share the desire to return to a mask-free normal, today’s CDC guidance is confusing and fails to consider how it will impact essential workers who face frequent exposure to individuals who are not vaccinated and refuse to wear masks,” Marc Perrone, the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, told the Times.

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Even prominent figures who typically support CDC expertise are iffy about the change.

House speaker Nancy Pelosi told CNN she’s still requiring masks on the House floor, rhetorically asking, “Are they all vaccinated?”

The outlet conducted a survey and interviews among members of the House and learned 100% of Democrats are vaccinated against COVID-19, while about 45% of Republicans have received their shots; 112 Republicans did not answer CNN’s inquiries.

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