President Joe Biden, joined by Vice President Kamala Harris and CDC director Rochelle Walensky, talks with CDC staff during a briefing March 19, 2021, at the CDC headquarters in Atlanta. (Adam Schultz/Official White House photo)
WASHINGTON — Americans fully vaccinated against COVID-19 do not need to wear a mask in most situations, indoors and outdoors, federal health officials said in an updated set of recommendations Thursday that marks a major turning point in the pandemic.
The announcement is a shift from earlier federal guidance, which had urged people who are vaccinated to continue wearing a face mask when indoors with anyone not vaccinated or when in large-group settings.
With a larger share of Americans vaccinated and a growing stack of studies confirming the vaccines’ effectiveness, Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the science is clear on taking additional steps toward life before the pandemic.
“We have all longed for this moment, when we can get back to some sense of normalcy,” Walensky said. “Based on the continuing downward trajectory of cases, the scientific data on the performance of our vaccines, and our understanding of how the virus spreads, that moment has come.”
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly said the state would adopt the changes immediately and no longer require fully vaccinated individuals to wear masks indoors or outdoors, or physically distance, unless required by businesses, public transportation or health care facilities.
“This announcement is welcome news, and a testament to the sacrifices Kansans have made over the last year,” Kelly said. “I can think of no better reason for all Kansans to get vaccinated. The sooner we are vaccinated — the sooner we get back to normal.”
Kansas health officials as of Thursday had reported more than 2 million doses of vaccines administered to more than 1.1 million people.
The policy change applies to people who are “fully” vaccinated. That means at least two weeks have passed since receiving a second COVID-19 vaccine dose, for those who got the Pfizer or Moderna shot, or after getting the one-dose Johnson & Johnson shot.
One key exception to the new mask recommendation is for public transportation. Masks still must be worn on airplanes, trains and buses.
The CDC guidance doesn’t alter state and local rules for mask-wearing. The agency noted that individuals still must follow those local regulations and any rules enacted by private businesses, which may continue to require masks.
The announcement follows a growing wave of criticism that the CDC has gone too slowly in loosening its guidance on what vaccinated people should and should not do, and where face masks need to be worn.
Public health experts have lambasted the agency’s instruction on mask-wearing at summer camps as needlessly strict. A New York Times analysis was skeptical of the agency’s claims on outdoor transmission, calling it “misleading” and inflated.
Asked if the agency was responding to changes in science or to the public backlash, Walensky cited the plummeting tally of U.S. infections, which have dropped by one-third in the last two weeks. She also pointed to the increase in vaccine availability and the broader eligibility for those as young as 12 years old.
The eased guidelines are not intended as another technique to incentivize those who have not yet received a vaccine, Walensky added, saying the agency sought to follow the science available.
More than 46% of the entire U.S. population has received at least one vaccine, and 35% are fully vaccinated, according to CDC data. President Joe Biden has set a goal of having 70% of U.S. adults receive at least one dose by July Fourth, and so far, 59% of that age group has one shot.
Dropping masks among vaccinated Americans will be one of the most visible steps toward resuming pre-pandemic activities.
The excitement around doing so could be seen at the White House, where Biden met Thursday afternoon with a group of Republican senators, including Sens. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Mike Crapo of Idaho, and Roy Blunt of Missouri.
GOP lawmakers told reporters afterward that they took off their masks in the Oval Office when they heard the CDC’s announcement — and that Biden did the same.
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