CDC director defends lifting masks steering for vaccinated

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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky is seen during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing to discuss the on-going federal response to COVID-19, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., May 11, 2021.

Greg Nash | Pool | Reuters

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky defended the agency’s decision to tell people who are fully vaccinated against Covid-19 they can go without a mask as state and local officials grapple with whether to follow suit.

“We are asking people to be honest with themselves,” Walensky said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” which aired Sunday. “If they are vaccinated and they are not wearing a mask, they are safe. If they are not vaccinated and they are not wearing a mask, they are not safe.”

The CDC’s recommendation has created some confusion because it does not lift local mask mandates. States, municipalities and businesses can make the choice whether or not to follow it. There’s also no definitive way to track who has received a vaccine, forcing businesses to work on a sort of honor system.

“This was not permission to shed masks for everybody everywhere. This was really science driven, individual assessment of your risk,” Walensky said Sunday morning on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance Thursday, saying it’s safe for fully vaccinated Americans to remove their masks in most settings, whether they are outside or indoors. It’s the first time in more than a year that the federal government has encouraged ditching masks, and marks a major turning point for the pandemic.

Masks are still required on planes, buses and public transportation.

White House chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci reaffirmed the guidance while appearing on CBS’s “Face The Nation” later in the morning.

“There’s been an accumulation of data showing the real world effectiveness of the vaccines,” Fauci said. “It’s even better than in the clinical trials, well over 90% protecting you against the disease.”

“Even though there are breakthrough infections with vaccinated people, almost always the people are asymptomatic, and the level of virus is so low, it makes it extremely unlikely, not impossible but very, very low likelihood they are going to transmit it,” Fauci said. 

Some states have decided to keep mask mandates in place for now. New Jersey and Hawaii will ask people to continue to wear masks indoors.

Illinois, Connecticut, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington, Minnesota, Nevada, Kentucky and Oregon have all said they would relax their mask rules. Texas had lifted its mask mandates before the CDC’s recommendation.

Officials from New York and California, two of the hardest hit states, are currently reviewing the CDC’s changes and have not yet given guidance, meaning mandates are still in place.

Some retailers, including Target, Gap, Home Depot and Ulta Beauty, have also said they’ll keep pandemic protocols in place.

“Essential workers are still forced to play mask police for shoppers who are unvaccinated and refuse to follow local COVID safety measures. Are they now supposed to become the vaccination police?,” Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, said in a statement shared with CNBC on Friday.

Fauci said the CDC will be coming out in the next couple of weeks with more clarification on when masks are appropriate.

As of Friday, more than 156 million Americans have received at least one dose of a Covid vaccine, according to the CDC. About 121 million are fully vaccinated, according to the agency.

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