Fully vaccinated people in the US can now stop wearing masks outdoors and in most indoor settings.
"Today is a great day for America," President Joe Biden said on Thursday during a Rose Garden address heralding the new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
"If you are fully vaccinated, you no longer need to wear a mask," he said, summarizing the new guidance and encouraging more Americans to roll up their sleeves. "Get vaccinated — or wear a mask until you do."
The guidance still calls for wearing masks in crowded indoor settings like buses, planes, hospitals, prisons and homeless shelters, but it will help clear the way for reopening workplaces, schools and other venues — even removing the need for social distancing for those who are fully vaccinated.
The CDC and the Biden administration have faced pressure to ease restrictions on fully vaccinated people — those who are two weeks past their last required COVID-19 vaccine dose — in part to highlight the benefits of getting the shot. The country’s aggressive vaccination campaign has paid off: U.S. virus cases are at their lowest rate since September, deaths are at their lowest point since last April and the test positivity rate is at the lowest point since the pandemic began.
The pandemic has killed more than 584,000 people in the U.S. — the highest death toll in the world.
Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, said the long-awaited change is thanks to the millions of people who have gotten vaccinated and is based on the latest science about how well those shots are working.
“Anyone who is fully vaccinated can participate in indoor and outdoor activities — large or small — without wearing a mask or physically distancing,” Walensky said. “If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic.”
The new guidance is likely to open the door to confusion, since there is no surefire way for businesses or others to distinguish between those who are fully vaccinated and those who are not.
Walensky and Biden said people who are not fully vaccinated should continue to wear masks indoors.
“We’ve gotten this far — please protect yourself until you get to the finish line,” Biden said, noting that most Americans under 65 are not yet fully vaccinated. He said the government was not going to enforce the mask-wearing guidance on those not yet fully vaccinated.
“We're not going to go out and arrest people,” added Biden, who said he believes the American people want to take care of their neighbors. “If you haven’t been vaccinated, wear your mask for your own protection and the protection of the people who also have not been vaccinated yet."
The announcement came as many states and communities have already been lifting mask mandates amid improving virus numbers and as more Americans have been shedding face coverings after getting shots.
To date more than 154 million Americans, nearly 47% of the population, have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, and nearly 119 million are fully vaccinated. The rate of new vaccinations has slowed in recent weeks, but with the authorisation Wednesday of the Pfizer shot for children aged 12 to 15, a new burst of doses is expected in the coming days.
The CDC's announcement that Americans could begin to shed one of the most visible symbols of the pandemic stood in stark contrast to other nations, with much of the world still struggling to contain the virus amid global disparities in vaccinations.
Just two weeks ago, the CDC recommended that fully vaccinated people continue to wear masks indoors in all settings and outdoors in large crowds.
Walensky said that evidence from the U.S. and Israel shows the vaccines are as strongly protective in real world use as they were in earlier studies and that so far they continue to work even though some worrying mutated versions of the virus are spreading.
The more people continue to get vaccinated, the faster infections will drop — and the harder it will be for the virus to mutate enough to escape vaccines, she stressed, urging everyone 12 and older who is not yet vaccinated to sign up.
And while some people still get COVID-19 despite being vaccinated, Walensky said, that’s rare. She cited evidence that those infections tend to be milder, shorter and harder to spread to others. If people who are vaccinated do develop COVID-19 symptoms, they should immediately put their mask back on and get tested, she said.
There are some caveats. Walensky encouraged people who have weak immune systems, such as from organ transplants or cancer treatment, to talk with their doctors before shedding their masks. That’s because of continued uncertainty about whether the vaccines can rev up a weakened immune system as well as they do normal, healthy ones.