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CDC Loosens Mask Guidance For Vaccinated People, A Major Shift In Pandemic Life

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

If you are fully vaccinated, you can take off your mask. That is what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced today. And at the White House, a maskless President Biden declared...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Well, today is a great day for America in our long battle with the coronavirus.

KELLY: Now, there are some important caveats from the CDC. Masks will still be required for people on public transit and in health care settings and for people who are not vaccinated. But the new guidance represents an enormous shift on COVID-19. Joining us to talk about the impact, NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith and science correspondent Richard Harris.

Hey, you two.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hello.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So talk about this enormous shift - Richard, you first. Why this change, and why now?

HARRIS: Well, I'll talk about the science part of this change. Today at a White House Zoom briefing, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said that the data that are coming in now just show how effective vaccines really are for people who have been fully vaccinated. That is the important caveat, which means two weeks after their final dose, the vaccine is really quite good at preventing infections and even more so protective against disease and hospitalizations.

Fully vaccinated people may occasionally pick up the virus, she says. But, you know, all the new evidence shows that they are unlikely to get sick or - and they are very low-risk for spreading it to others if they do pick it up. So while it's still important from a community standpoint to get as many people vaccinated as possible to further drive down the spread of this disease, from the perspective of an individual, the strong message is if you're fully vaccinated, you can relax.

KELLY: Wow. It's been a long time...

HARRIS: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Since we heard that. And just to be clear, we're talking inside as well as outside.

HARRIS: That's right. And there are some limitations, though. The six-foot distancing guidance, I should say, has already been - also been lifted for people if you're fully vaccinated. But the CDC has not changed all of its guidance. For example, it still recommends masks for people who are working in health care settings or in health care settings or if you're traveling in a bus or train or an airplane. But Dr. Walensky said all that's also now under review considering the data that they used to make this other decision. So - and she also says she's left a lot of decision-making about schools and businesses up to localities. Here's what she said on that point today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROCHELLE WALENSKY: We, of course, will be updating our guidance on many of these areas very shortly. But importantly, I think we really need to understand that this country is very heterogeneous. It's not uniform. And so these are going to have to be about - these decisions are going to have to be made at the local level.

KELLY: And I want to note that we've actually got Dr. Walensky. She's going to be with us elsewhere in the show. Ailsa will get to ask her about all kinds of stuff. But, Richard, just quickly to you, that - what she just said there about decisions being made at the local level - meaning what, exactly?

HARRIS: Meaning you shouldn't assume that you can walk to your grocery store and not wear a mask.

KELLY: I see. Yeah.

HARRIS: They may very well still have a sign up on the door that says, masks required. That will be up to the stores in the communities where they're operating.

KELLY: Yeah.

KEITH: Yeah. And I just have to jump in here and say that at least initially, this could be pretty confusing for people. As Richard said, this is guidance for individuals who are vaccinated. But generally speaking, we don't all walk around with a T-shirt on that says, I'm vaccinated. So how is a store or a restaurant supposed to know who among their patrons is vaccinated? I spoke to Dr. Leana Wen immediately after the briefing. She's an emergency room physician and public health professor at George Washington University.

LEANA WEN: I am shocked, actually, because I think the CDC has gone from one extreme to the other. They went from extreme caution to - I mean, really, I'm just - I'm kind of speechless because I do agree that there should be no restrictions on vaccinated people. But the problem is, what about those around them? How are they going to know?

KEITH: She had hoped there would be an interim step where, if people could prove that they were vaccinated, they could do things that unvaccinated people couldn't. Now she worries that if she takes her little kids who are too young to be vaccinated to the grocery store, for instance, that she'll have no idea whether the maskless person next to her is vaccinated or just doesn't like wearing a mask.

KELLY: Yeah. Tam, we heard Richard talking about the science underpinning this decision. What about the politics? We know that the Biden administration has been under a lot of pressure to give people a reason to want to get vaccinated, to get to do things that they weren't able to do before they were vaccinated. Is that undergirding this decision as well?

KEITH: Right, to fully - to model what fully vaccinated life looks like. So the CDC is independent and insists up and down that this was a decision based on science. The White House has been deferring to CDC guidance. And so earlier this week, President Biden admitted that, yeah, they've maybe been overly cautious and maybe a little bit too slow with, for instance, his own personal mask usage. Yesterday there was a meeting with four congressional leaders in the Oval Office. They have all been fully vaccinated for months now, but they all wore masks.

Today there was another meeting with members of Congress and the president and the vice president. It was happening when the CDC news came down. And Senator Shelley Moore Capito, who was there in the room, says they all took off their masks right then and there when the news came out.

KELLY: Wow.

KEITH: Traveling in West Virginia, the first lady and Senator Joe Manchin went mask-free while urging people to follow through and get vaccinated. First Lady Jill Biden joked that she felt naked. And then later in the Rose Garden, President Biden was maskless and celebratory, though again pushing to get everyone vaccinated, to not let up, even though this is a very huge shift after a year where masks have been such a potent and divisive political symbol.

HARRIS: Right. And let's remember here that that this is a - people don't necessarily need to be quizzed about their vaccine status in situations like this because, as CDC Director Walensky mentioned, you know, unvaccinated people are now mostly facing a personal risk, although there are still concerns that it could pose a risk for people who have medical conditions that don't allow them to develop immunity. So the thoughtful thing to do for them is - if you're not vaccinated is to wear a mask to protect people like that. But, of course, the solution is get vaccinated. And I think that was really part of the CDC's message today for everyone.

KELLY: So the message remains, get vaccinated. Get vaccinated. Get vaccinated. That's NPR's Richard Harris and Tamara Keith helping us navigate these latest CDC guidelines for pandemic life. Thanks, you two.

KEITH: You're welcome.

HARRIS: Sure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.