The United States reached an important milestone in the coronavirus pandemic on Thursday after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that fully vaccinated Americans no longer needed to wear a mask or social distance while indoors and outdoors.
Wearing a mask when out in public has become routine for most Americans for more than one year. But as case numbers and the death toll decline across the US and many people are vaccinated against Covid-19, the federal health agency revealed a significant change to its guidance.
"Anyone who is fully vaccinated can participate in indoor and outdoor activities, large or small, without wearing a mask or physical distancing," she added.
The change in guidance applies to anyone two weeks after they receive the second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna Covid-19 vaccine, and anyone two weeks after they receive the single-dose Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine.
As of Wednesday, more than 117 million Americans, or 35.4 per cent of the US population, are fully vaccinated against the novel virus.
What can and can’t fully vaccinated people do?
For the most part, the CDC guidance states that fully vaccinated Americans are allowed to participate in normal activities without wearing a mask or social distancing.
“If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic,” Dr Walensky said.
According to the CDC, vaccinated individuals no longer have to wear a mask for indoor and outdoor activities, including eating at a restaurant, participating in an exercise class, and attending an outdoor event like a concert.
This same guidance also applies to social distancing.
Previous guidance recommended for vaccinated individuals to wear a mask when indoors if they were around other people who have yet to receive a vaccine. But Dr Walensky said this would no longer be required.
“The science demonstrates that if you are fully vaccinated, you are protected. It is the people not vaccinated who are not protected,” she said.
“The science is also very clear about unvaccinated people: you remain at risk of mild or severe illness, of death, or of spreading the disease,” Dr Walensky added. “You should still mask, and you should get vaccinated right away.”
But there are still some exceptions where masks will still be required, no matter if someone is fully vaccinated or not.
The CDC still requires all Americans to wear masks when on aeroplanes or other public transportation like trains and busses.
"If you are immune compromised, you will most definitely want to talk to your doctor before giving up your mask," Dr Walensky said.
Does this mean fully vaccinated individuals can trash their masks?
As stated above, masks will still be required in airports, bus terminals, and train stations, as well as on planes, trains, and buses, for the near future. The federal mask mandate has not been lifted for travelling.
Also, the new guidance released by the CDC is simply that, guidance.
States and local businesses will have the option to continue with mask mandates or ask for residents or patrons to provide proof of vaccinations, like vaccine passports.
"If you are fully vaccinated against #Covid19, you can resume activities without wearing a mask or staying six feet apart, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal or territorial laws, incl. local business and workplace guidance," the CDC said in a statement.
It will depend state to state on if governors will allow for venues and local businesses to require proof of vaccination for patrons.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, for example, signed legislation earlier this month that prohibits Covid-19 vaccine passports from being required by government and business entities.
"In Florida, your personal choice regarding vaccinations will be protected and no business or government entity will be able to deny you services based on your decision," Mr DeSantis, a Republican, said when announcing the legislation.
Other Republican state governors have taken similar stances on the issue.
Why did the CDC change the guidance now?
Dr Walensky said there were several factors over the last 16 days that influenced the federal health agency to alter its masking and social distancing policy.
For one, infection rates have declined by one-third across the country, Dr Walensky said, which indicated the country was in better control of the novel virus compared to previous months. Also, vaccine eligibility has opened up to children ages 12 to 15 years old, meaning millions of more residents will have access to the jab in the coming weeks.
Another factor in altering the guidance was the current science of how effective the vaccines are at preventing Covid-19 disease and transmission to others.
But the CDC has also faced backlash in recent weeks for being too conservative when it comes to mask and social distancing guidance as more people receive a vaccine. State and health officials put pressure on the agency in recent weeks to update guidance on those who are fully vaccinated.
While Dr Walensky did not state that the pressure was a factor in the latest decision, it likely played a part in the Thursday announcement.
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