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The Masks Are Coming Off. Now What?

The CDC’s updated guidance that fully vaccinated people can now resume indoor and outdoor activities without wearing masks or physical distancing signals a major milestone in the pandemic. For many, this may seem like the real beginning of life getting back to normal.

LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan

“All the protocols and precautions LIUNA members have been following on and off the job for over a year have helped lead to this,” says LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan. “That includes all the members who committed to getting vaccinated once COVID-19 vaccines became available. We commend them, and encourage anyone who isn’t yet fully vaccinated to take that step if they are able to.”

In explaining the reasons behind the policy changes, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky cited several new studies showing the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines at preventing sickness and death (including COVID-19 variants) and at preventing transmission of the virus.

The new guidance does come with several very important caveats:

  • It only applies to fully vaccinated people.
  • It doesn’t overrule federal, state or other local guidance, including rules issued by businesses and workplaces.
  • It doesn’t apply in certain settings, including healthcare, long-term care facilities and on public transportation.

These exceptions have raised a number of concerns from the public, workers and businesses alike. Let’s take them one at a time.

It only applies to fully vaccinated people

At the time the guidance was issued, about 46 percent of Americans 18 and older were fully vaccinated. About 60 percent of adults have had at least one shot of the vaccine but are not yet fully vaccinated. The Pfizer vaccine was recently approved for children age 12 and up, but hasn’t been approved long enough for children to be fully vaccinated.

The concern isn’t that fully vaccinated people will no longer wear masks – it’s that people who aren’t vaccinated will choose to stop wearing masks now, too. That would put other unvaccinated people they come in contact with at risk, including young children who aren’t yet able to get vaccinated.

The CDC’s new policy relies almost entirely on the honor system at a time when mask-wearing remains a highly politicized issue that has led to verbal and physical altercations in businesses across the country. “We are asking people to be honest with themselves,” says Dr. Walensky. “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 new CDC guidance has left many people wondering how much they can trust others to do the right thing. Similarly, businesses are having to weigh protecting their employees against whether to potentially anger their customers by asking for proof of vaccination.

It doesn’t overrule federal, state or local guidance, including business and workplace guidance

Much like state mandates for quarantine, business reopening and the vaccine rollout, CDC guidance doesn’t set the rules for everyone. States, counties and businesses all have to decide whether to update their guidance according to the new CDC guidelines or leave mask mandates and other social distancing protocols in place.

Some states reacted to the news by quickly removing mask mandates, while others are being more cautious and leaving mask mandates in place for now. Businesses are seeing a similar divide, with some national chains saying that fully vaccinated customers and workers can choose not to wear masks, while others are keeping their mask policies for the time being.

The important takeaway for fully vaccinated people is that you may still have to wear a mask in many businesses, at least for now. The best practice is to continue to carry a mask with you and follow any signage or local rules asking you to wear it.

It doesn’t apply in certain specific settings, including healthcare, long-term care facilities and on public transportation

With many Americans looking forward to traveling again, it’s worth noting that masks are still required for everyone traveling on public transportation, including in airports and on planes as well as on buses and trains. The Biden administration’s transportation mask mandate remains in place through September 13.

“In circumstances where people are packed close together and you don’t know the status of immunization of everybody, it is still the better part of being cautious to wear masks on those planes and trains and buses,” said Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health.

Previous masking rules and social distancing protocols also still apply in hospitals, long-term care facilities, prisons and other congregate living facilities such as homeless shelters.

Masking Can Continue as a Personal Choice for the Fully Vaccinated

Many Americans, including some health experts, were surprised by the CDC’s policy reversal. If you’re fully vaccinated and not yet comfortable without a mask, go ahead and continue wearing it.

“The most important point is that the CDC is putting responsibility back on individuals,” said John Swartzberg, an infectious disease specialist and clinical professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Public Health. “Each individual should look at what the CDC is recommending and see if that fits for them.”

Many health experts are optimistic that the new CDC guidelines will encourage more people to get vaccinated now that the benefits include once again doing many of the things we enjoyed before the pandemic. For those who are still hesitant to get vaccinated, a single statistic from the Cleveland Clinic is a good reminder of how effective COVID-19 vaccines are – over 99 percent of people with COVID-19 in their hospitals from January through mid-April were not fully vaccinated.

[Nick Fox]

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