Reaction to the CDC’s announcement that vaccinated people can go maskless in most situations

In a week when the CDC was taken to task for being misleadingly cautious and sometimes contradictory in its COVID-19 advice, the agency’s director announced that fully vaccinated people can stop wearing masks in most circumstances.

“Anyone who is fully vaccinated can participate in indoor and outdoor activities, large or small, without a mask or physically distancing,” Rochelle Walensky, M.D., the CDC director said in a 45-second video posted today on the White House website. The CDC also updated a color-coded infographic that now shows vaccinated people in the safest green category when going maskless in most circumstances.

“1 big thing: Freedom for the vaccinated,” was the headline on Mike Allen’s afternoon newsletter for Axios.

Stat wasn't so enthused. "CDC backtracks, saying fully vaccinated people can go maskless indoors,” was its headline.

Others gave the CDC more credit. “Why did it take the CDC til May 13 to recommend the vaccinated be liberated. Because it was unclear if vaccines protect against transmission — not just harboring the virus in your nose — but spreading it,” Eric Topol tweeted. “It’s abundantly clear now, at least w/ mRNA vaccines that transmission is rare.” In his next tweet, Topol listed six studies that support the notion that the chances that vaccinated people spread the coronavirus is small.

Lawrence O. Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University, criticized the CDC’s mask in an emailed statement. “It's still impossible to know who is fully vaccinated and who isn't, and it's unlikely that only the fully vaccinated will return to normal activities. The public will not feel comfortable in a crowded indoor space if they are unsure if the maskless person standing next to them is or is not vaccinated.”

The statement from Gostin goes on to say the U.S. has “no ‘proof of vaccination’ system and the Biden administration refuses to support such a system of verification.”

Walensky’s dramatic statement today came after some strongly critical coverage of the CDC and its handling of risk statistics and messaging.

On Tuesday, David Leonhardt of The New York Times devoted his morning newsletter to a critique of the CDC’s characterization of the risk of outdoor transmission of coronavirus.

The same day, Stat published a story headlined “CDC’s slow cautious messaging on Covid-19 seems out of step with the moment, public health experts say.” The writer, Nicholas Florko, a Stat Washington correspondent, reported that most of the experts that he interviewed said the “agency has struggled to take advantage of the latest scientific findings to communicate as rapidly as possible with the American public. And when guidance is issued, it tends to be overly cautious.”

Today’s announcement applies to people who are fully vaccinated, so Biden administration health officials are hoping that maskless vaccinees will encourage more people to get vaccinated. As of this morning at 6 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, CDC-assembled data showed almost 120 million Americans as being fully vaccinated, which works out to be nearly 36% of the population.

For the purposes of the mask guidelines, the CDC defines people as being “fully vaccinated” after two weeks have passed since they have received either the second dose of a two-dose vaccines or the lone dose of a one-dose vaccine. The two-dose vaccines available in the U.S. are made by Pfizer and Moderna. The only single-dose vaccine that is currently available made by Johnson & Johnson.

The CDC’s guidance that vaccinated people can go safely maskless does some important caveats:

  • It does not apply to travel on planes, trains and other forms of public transportation or to transportation hubs, such as airports and bus depots. In an interview with NPR today, Walensky said “travel guidance is not just CDC’s guidance, it's a policy and it's an interagency policy. So, we have to collaborate with other agencies to, to work through what might change in that policy.”
  • Tighter rules may still apply, depending on state and local government policies and on workplace guidances.
  • People with compromised immune systems may still need to take precautions even after being fully vaccinated. The CDC website advises people with such conditions to speak to their healthcare provider.