Health

U.S. CDC eases guidance on indoor mask-wearing for those fully vaccinated against COVID-19

In a striking move to send the country back toward pre-pandemic life, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is easing indoor mask-wearing guidance for fully vaccinated people, allowing them to safely stop wearing masks inside in most places.

Guidance no longer recommends fully vaccinated people wear masks outdoors in crowds

Pedestrians not wearing face masks make their way through Times Square in New York in late April. The U.S. CDC this week issued updated guidance around mask-wearing for people who have been fully vaccinated. (Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

In a striking move to send the country back toward pre-pandemic life, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has eased indoor mask-wearing guidance for fully vaccinated people, allowing them to safely stop wearing masks inside in most places.

The newly-issued guidance 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 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.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the CDC, 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 recommendations come 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.

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 aged 12-15, a new burst of doses is expected in the coming days.

The new guidance for what U.S. residents can do once fully vaccinated will still call for wearing masks in crowded indoor settings like buses, planes, hospitals, prisons and homeless shelters (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Vaccination benefits offer 'motivation'

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 to get vaccinated."

"Good point," Biden responded. He added, "we're going to be moving on that in the next little bit."

Following the CDC's Thursday announcement, Canadian officials also weighed in, saying this country is in a different position.

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The issue of comparing Canada to the U.S., according to Canada's deputy chief public health officer Dr. Howard Njoo, is that we have a more collective or community approach, focused on what health officials are seeing in the population as a whole.

"In Canada, we've gone with the approach that it's as important to get as many Canadians as possible vaccinated with at least one dose, and certainly we're on track to do I would say by the end of June, if everything goes to plan," he continued, during a Thursday media briefing.

"With that we know we have a good level of protection for everyone, but it's not as high as it could be."

For the time being, Njoo said it's still crucial for Canadians to still keep practicing public health measures, including social distancing, mask-wearing hand washing, and following any local restrictions.

Guidance may spark confusion

South of the border, the eased 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.

WATCH | Canadian officials react to U.S. decision to drop masks for those fully vaccinated

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Canada's Deputy Public Health Officer Dr Howard Njoo briefed reporters on Thursday from Ottawa. 2:26

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 re-mask and get tested, she said.

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.

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