States shedding mask mandates over new CDC guidelines

Americans are receiving mixed messages about wearing masks. The CDC announced those who are fully vaccinated do not need to wear masks in most situations, leaving it up to states to do what they will with that guidance. Politico health care reporter Alice Ollstein spoke with CBSN'S Lana Zak about the potential public health impact.

Video Transcript

LANA ZAK: Americans who are eager to enjoy spring weather are receiving some mixed messages about wearing masks. The Centers for Disease Control announced Thursday it relaxed guidelines on face coverings for people who have been fully vaccinated. Shortly after, 18 states announced plans to drop public mask mandates. But others, including California, New York, and New Jersey, are moving forward with caution. The guideline changes come as nearly half of all Americans have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. And more than one third of the public are now fully vaccinated. As a result, the average number of daily new cases has dipped below 35,000. CBS News' Michael George has more.

MICHAEL GEORGE: The CDC's has new guidelines specifically apply to vaccinated people.

- People who are unvaccinated should not be taking off their masks.

MICHAEL GEORGE: The guidelines issued as cases went down by a third last week and vaccinations again increased were left open to interpretation.

- The state of North Carolina will no longer require you to wear a mask.

MICHAEL GEORGE: But.

- There will continue to be a mandatory indoor mask requirement on public transportation, in child care, in schools, in prisons, and in certain public health settings.

MICHAEL GEORGE: Colorado took a broader view.

JARED POLIS: We have now really reached a threshold where not enough people are vaccinated to end the pandemic, but enough people are vaccinated where especially those who are vaccinated no longer need to wear masks.

- And corporations made up their own rules. Kroger, Target, and Home Depot say they're keeping mask mandates in place. But Walmart and Trader Joe's won't require masks for vaccinated customers. But they won't ask for proof of vaccination. Neither will the mayor of St. Louis.

TISAURA JONES: We don't want this to turn into sort of like a show me your papers moment. We'll just have to trust what people tell us.

MICHAEL GEORGE: That's not good enough for the Kellys from Oregon masked up and visiting Washington DC.

- My concern is identifying the difference between those who are vaccinated and those who are not. So to go into a public space, to be less than six feet distanced because I'm vaccinated, I'm just concerned that the next person, how honest are they going to be?

MICHAEL GEORGE: Debate about so-called vaccine passports, proof of vaccination, is increasing. And so is pushback. Take the protest this week when local officials in Southern California considered vaccine passports.

But a parade in Kentucky yesterday served as a reminder that the pandemic still underway is deadly serious. 30-year-old Olivia Tudor was released from the hospital to welcoming neighbors and friends.

- It was a miracle.

MICHAEL GEORGE: She spent months in a coma, but defied the odds.

- She was in the hospital, not expected to make it. And then the prayer warriors, we've got a group of them. There's a bunch of them.

MICHAEL GEORGE: Michael George, CBS News, New York.

LANA ZAK: Joining us to go deeper into the public health impacts of lifting mask mandates is Politico health care reporter Alice Ollstein. Alice, thanks for being here. So, as you heard in Michael George's package, each state is responding to the CDC's guidance differently, which has been confusing to many people. So let's just start off by understanding why did the federal government lift its mask mandates for vaccinated people? And then why are some states still keeping those mandates in place?

ALICE OLLSTEIN: So the government, here, is trying to address two flavors of why some have been hesitant to get vaccinated. One is people saying, how are we sure that this works? This is a brand new vaccine. And so what the government is saying here is these vaccines work. We had amazing clinical trial data on the vaccines when we first rolled them out, but now we've put them to the test out in the real world. And the results have, honestly, been astonishing. As you said, cases are down, hospitalizations are way down, and deaths are the lowest they've been since April of last year.

And so the message is, these vaccines work so well that you don't have to wear a mask even if you're indoors, even if you're around other people, even if you're around unvaccinated people. No more six feet apart. None of that. The other thing is that they are responding to those who are hesitant to get vaccinated who have been feeling like, why should I bother when I'll have to abide by all of the same restrictions whether I'm vaccinated or not? I don't get to go back to my normal life. This is saying, now you can. This is supposed to be a strong incentive to get people who are on the fence.

And there's some data that this could be really motivational for people. There's been some polling out of UCLA where they asked a lot of folks, what would convince you to get the vaccine, whether it's a cash payment or the right to go without a mask or these different motivations. And the right to go without a mask was compelling across all groups, but it was most compelling for the group that has been the most hesitant, which is self-identified Republicans. And so while this is going in this direction, it also comes with a lot of risks because, as you noted earlier, we don't yet have an easy way to verify who is vaccinated and who is not.

LANA ZAK: Right, and that's such a challenge. Is there any guidance about whether vaccine passports are going to come into play in certain locations? Or if there are enforcement mechanisms to make sure that the guidance is actually being followed by people who are vaccinated and having their masks off and people who aren't vaccinated keeping their masks on.

ALICE OLLSTEIN: Right, so the Biden administration has repeatedly said that they are not looking to impose any kind of federal vaccine passport system. They said they could give guidance, help set standards, but they are really leaving this to either individual states or the private sector. And that puts a lot of onus on individual businesses that don't have the resources or the technology that the federal government has. And it really poses some ethical dilemmas here, because if there's some sort of smartphone-based system where people can show their proof of vaccination in order to access certain spaces, that could exclude a huge population who are low income or who are elderly or who have language barriers. A lot of people don't have a smartphone. And so there is an equity issue here. We've already had a pandemic so defined by disparities and different access to health care and so much else. And there's concern about making that worse.

On the other hand, businesses are looking at reopening for live events and all kinds of other things. And it's in their interest to keep their workers safe, keep their customers safe. And so they are really looking at what can we do to be able to either have different sections for vaccinated or unvaccinated people or restrict entry and require proof of vaccination. But again, the federal government is staying out of this for now because there is a lot of concern about government overreach and rhetoric about Big Brother. And they don't want to send any kind of message in that regard, even though they've been lobbied to get into the vaccine passport space by the airline industry and several other industries.

LANA ZAK: Alice, how much does the Biden administration hope that this new mask guidance will help to jumpstart the economy? And how much are they hoping that this is going to actually incentivize people who are hesitant to get vaccinated?

ALICE OLLSTEIN: So I mean, both, clearly, but it's definitely more the latter. The economy already has been bouncing back somewhat. Hiring is up. And they really want to send the message that thanks to the vaccines, we are winning the war against the virus. The question is how long does that last? And is it too early to declare victory when, as you noted, fewer than 40% of the country is fully vaccinated. We have new variants of the virus emerging. So far the vaccines are very effective against those new variants, but that is just luck, honestly. And every transmission, every time the virus jumps from one person to another, there's the possibility for a mutation to occur and a new variant to emerge.

And so, it's just continuing to move towards normalcy while still urging people to get vaccinated to reach some threshold of herd immunity so we can really squash this virus and get back to our lives.

LANA ZAK: So Alice, the CDC's guidelines apply to people who are fully vaccinated, these updated mask guidelines. What is now the mask guidance for kids under the age of 12 who are not yet eligible for the vaccine?

ALICE OLLSTEIN: So I've been hearing a lot of concern about this. And I've been hearing a lot of concern from parents saying that they are now in this sort of information vacuum. And they are concerned that they won't be able to bring their kids into public spaces anymore because now adults will be unmasked. They're afraid of their children getting infected. Companies are creating vaccines. They're going through clinical trials right now and testing them for younger kids, even as little as toddlers. But that won't be for many more months. So we just got approval-- sorry, we just got emergency use authorization, key difference, for the 12 to 15 age population, but not for younger than that.

And so, this really opens up a lot of questions about schools and daycares. Are adults going to be unmasked, whereas kids continue to wear masks? The difficulty of enforcing that and addressing parents' concerns about bringing their kids into public spaces where adults are unmasked and it's impossible to tell who has been vaccinated and who has not.

LANA ZAK: All right, Alice Ollstein, thank you so much for joining us.

ALICE OLLSTEIN: Thank you.