President Joe Biden urged Americans hesitant to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to reconsider, pointing to new U.S. guidance that inoculated people can socialize outdoors without masks.
“Beginning today, gathering with a group of friends in a park, going on a picnic, as long as you’re vaccinated and outdoors, you can do it without a mask,” Biden said Tuesday at the White House. “If you’re vaccinated, you can do more things, more safely, both outdoors as well as indoors.”
About 141 million Americans have received at least one dose of vaccine, according to the Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker, but the pace of U.S. shots has fallen under 3 million per day despite abundant supply.
“For those who haven’t gotten their vaccine yet, especially if you’re younger, or thinking you don’t need it,” Biden said, “this is another great reason to go get vaccinated now … now.”
Fully vaccinated Americans can drop their masks when exercising, dining and socializing outdoors in small groups, federal health officials said earlier Tuesday. They should also feel free to gather indoors with other fully vaccinated people and family members without masks or social distancing.
But masks should remain on anywhere there’s a large gathering, including at ballparks, malls or church, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in releasing recommendations that represent one of the most significant relaxations of guidelines since the pandemic began.
“Today is another day we can take a step back to the normalcy of before,” Rochelle Walensky, the CDC chief, said at a news briefing announcing the changes. She cited a “really hopeful decline” of about 21% in the seven-day average for COVID-19 cases.
Biden, too, celebrated progress curbing the pandemic, saying that COVID-19 deaths among American seniors have fallen 80% since he was inaugurated and hospitalizations among the demographic are down 70%.
The new recommendations are complex and wide-ranging. They come with almost 30% of Americans fully inoculated and with increases starting to slow in the daily COVID-19 caseload.
Other countries with high immunization rates have also begun to ease masking rules. On April 18, Israel — the world’s most vaccinated country — lifted its nationwide mandate on mask-wearing outdoors and reopened its education system. It has fully vaccinated just over 55% of its adult population.
Under the new U.S. rules, fully vaccinated people can attend a small outdoor gathering maskless or dine at an outdoor restaurant with others, whether they’re fully vaccinated or not. They can also get together indoors with unvaccinated people of any age from one other household without masks or social distancing, according to the agency.
Additionally, inoculated Americans don’t need to be isolated or get tested if they’ve been around someone with COVID-19, unless they have symptoms. If so, get tested and stay home, the agency urges.
“Over the past year, we have spent a lot of time telling Americans what they cannot do, what they should not do,” Walensky said. “Today, I’m going to tell you some of the things you can do if you are fully vaccinated.”
But the guidance also includes some reservations.
The CDC urges all Americans to wear masks when attending medium or large-size gatherings, such as live performances or sporting events, and during visits to malls and full-capacity places of worship. And the agency encourages people to be mindful when around those with an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19, including those with diabetes and some types of cancer, lung or kidney disease.
“You will still need to follow guidance at your workplace,” the CDC said, adding that the fully vaccinated “should continue to follow guidance to protect themselves and others, including wearing a well-fitted mask, when indoors or in an outdoor setting or venue where masks are required.”
You’re considered fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving the final vaccine dose of the two-dose vaccines made by Pfizer Inc.-BioNTech SE and Moderna Inc., or a single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
It’s long been understood that indoor environments present the highest risk of virus transmission. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, spreads largely through aerosolized viral particles. The size of a space, how many people are in it, length of exposure and air circulation all factor into how easily viral particles might spread.
The odds of infection are much smaller in outdoor settings, but numerous factors, such as social distancing, vaccination status and duration of face-to-face exposure can play a role in determining the likelihood of transmission.
Some health care experts say the CDC’s masking guidance is overdue.
Emily Landon, an epidemiologist and infectious disease doctor at the University of Chicago Medicine, said having clear guidance about masking for different activities encourages people to choose rational mask use, especially in places where there isn’t a mandate.
Monica Gandhi, associate division chief in HIV, infectious diseases, and global Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco General Hospital, said that the prospect of lifting restrictions altogether will serve as a motivator for vaccine uptake.
“A move like this, which follows the data around the low risk of outside transmission, can only serve to increase trust in public health officials as we continue the race towards mass vaccination in the U.S.,” she added.
However, other health care specialists aren’t so sure. The guidance “should have been a little on the conservative side,” said Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
He’s concerned it will be confusing to follow in public settings, as people won’t be able to discern who is or isn’t vaccinated, and that the guidance could be hard to walk back if the U.S. sees a surge of cases in winter due to seasonality and a potential spread of new variants.
“I’m very much concerned that we haven’t seen the end of COVID-19 and people are relaxing prematurely,” Mokdad said.
Other specialists say outdoor mask wearing can contribute to a sense of social solidarity in combating the virus, and are a visual reminder of the need for caution even as vaccinations increase and illness recedes.
“There’s no clear rule that can be applied,” said Krystal Pollitt, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health. “There are so many things to take into consideration to best evaluate risk. We still need to be vigilant.”
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