U.S. President Joe Biden took his biggest step yet toward declaring victory over the coronavirus pandemic — as public health officials said fully vaccinated Americans can ditch their masks in most settings, even indoors or in large groups.
“Today is a great day for America in our long battle with coronavirus,” Biden said at the White House on Thursday, calling the U.S. vaccination program a “historical logistical achievement.”
The guidance shift Thursday is a turning point in the fight against COVID-19 and comes as U.S. caseloads fall and vaccinations rise. It signals a broad return to everyday life, and is also a bet that any surge in spread from relaxed guidelines won’t be enough to reverse progress in inoculations. The administration also used it as a further incentive for vaccination.
“The rule is very simple: Get vaccinated or wear a mask until you do,” Biden said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the change in guidance while citing growing evidence that vaccines are effective against variants and outside of clinical trials, and fully vaccinated people are at low risk to spread the virus to someone else.
“Anyone who is fully vaccinated can participate in indoor or outdoor activities, large or small, without wearing a mask or physical distancing,” said CDC Director Rochelle Walensky. “If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic. We have all longed for this moment when we can get back to some sense of normalcy.”
The CDC guidance spelled out ample exceptions, however, that signal the era of masks isn’t over yet. The agency still recommends fully vaccinated people wear masks on “all planes, buses, trains and other forms of public transportation,” as well as in health care settings, correctional facilities, homeless shelters, and where required by state and local governments, or businesses.
And masks are still recommended for people who are partly vaccinated — those who’ve not yet waited two weeks from their final dose — or who haven’t gotten a vaccine, including children.
Walensky made the decision on Wednesday, briefed Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra that afternoon and informed the White House in the evening, according to a federal health official.
The CDC’s guidelines are suggestions for behavior but they don’t have the force of law. Ground-level decisions on when and where masks must be worn will now rest with states, local governments and businesses, which will have to decide whether to maintain or relax their masking mandates, and what mix of carrots and sticks they will use to compel compliance.
Yet even with the exceptions, the announcement represents a watershed moment. Only six weeks ago, Walensky had warned of “impending doom” as cases, hospitalizations and deaths rose. Thursday’s guidance was met in Washington with sighs of relief, as lawmakers in Congress and staff at the White House almost immediately dropped their masks. “Free at last,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said.
About 59% of American adults have received at least one shot, while 45% have received both. The COVID-19 vaccine made by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE was cleared for use in children ages 12 to 15 this week, fueling the inoculation campaign. New daily COVID-19 cases have been declining for weeks. Still, the pace of vaccinations has slowed from highs of a month ago, raising concerns about whether hesitancy will impede widespread protection in the population.
Biden has set a goal of 70% of adult Americans receiving at least one vaccine shot by July 4, another symbolic milestone. Biden has said he hopes the country will be able to mark its annual Independence Day holiday by ridding itself of the virus.
Still, even as the situation in the U.S. improves, the pandemic is raging in some vaccine-starved nations. Biden faces growing calls to share U.S. vaccine supply as the virus explodes in India, Brazil and other countries. The administration has claimed nearly every dose made on American soil so far, though says it will soon share 60 million AstraZeneca doses with other nations.
The most recent CDC guidance represents a major shift for the typically cautious agency, including from its own recommendations just weeks earlier. In late April, federal health officials said fully vaccinated Americans could drop their masks when exercising, dining and socializing outdoors in small groups, as well as when gathering indoors with other fully vaccinated people. Some question whether the guidance is premature, as only 35% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, and an entire population group — children under age 12 — doesn’t yet qualify for a shot.
“I think it’s really important that the CDC has changed their guidance and is finally demonstrating the effectiveness of vaccines,” said Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University who previously served as the health commissioner for Baltimore, Maryland. “However, it seems that they’ve gone from one extreme to another.”
The CDC considers someone fully vaccinated two weeks after their final dose — either two weeks after the second dose of vaccines from Moderna or Pfizer, or two weeks after receiving the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Some Republican senators pressed Walensky on the agency’s guidance for fully vaccinated people at a hearing Tuesday, with Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican, expressing concern about the pace at which the CDC was releasing recommendations.
“The American people have just lost patience with us, with you guys,” Cassidy said. “I just ask you to kind of be aware of their frustration and get a little real time into updating these things.”
The federal health official said Walensky knew her decision on masks would draw criticism — from those who said it had been made too quickly and those who said the CDC had been too slow.
Biden has steadily delivered a more optimistic tone on the pandemic, while warning regularly that the U.S. isn’t out of the woods. He has begun what he calls a “new phase” of the vaccination program, which emphasizes rural clinics, pharmacies and mobile sites instead of mass vaccination clinics, as demand for shots wanes.
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