This week’s surprise reversal of mask-wearing guidance for those vaccinated against Covid-19 was a “foundational first step” towards returning the US to normal, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) insisted on Sunday, as the agency continued to draw criticism for the sudden and confusing advice.
Dr Rochelle Walensky appeared on several Sunday talk shows to stress it was up to individuals whether to follow the guidance issued on Thursday.
“This was not permission to shed masks for everybody, everywhere. This was really [a] science-driven individual assessment of your risk,” Walensky told NBC’s Meet the Press.
“We are asking people to be honest with themselves. If they are vaccinated and they are not wearing a mask, they are safe. If they are not vaccinated and they are not wearing a mask, they are not safe.”
A growing number of groups and health experts have questioned the new guidance, which reversed the CDC position that even those fully vaccinated should continue to wear masks indoors, and came 48 hours after Walensky was assailed in Congress on the issue.
A number of mostly Republican-controlled states have subsequently said they are modifying their mask mandates and several large businesses, including Walmart and Starbucks, have dropped them altogether.
The nation’s largest nurses union suggested on Saturday the CDC advice was not based on science and said any relaxation of protective health measures would place patients and caregivers at risk.
Others were critical of the timing of the new guidance given that emergency approval was given only this week for those aged 12 to 15 to receive the Pzifer-BioNTech vaccine. Children aged 11 and under will likely not be able to receive a vaccine for months.
In an opinion piece for the Washington Post, health commentator Dr Leana Wen said the CDC move was “sudden” and prompted “increasing confusion”, particularly for vulnerable groups.
“Let’s say you go to the grocery store,” Wen wrote. “It’s crowded and few people there are masked. Perhaps everyone is vaccinated, but perhaps not. What if you’re vaccinated but not fully protected because you’re immunocompromised?
“You can no longer count on CDC rules to help you keep safe. What if you don’t have childcare, so you had to bring your kids along? They didn’t choose to remain unvaccinated, the shots aren’t available for them. Surely it’s not fair to put them at risk.”
Walensky acknowledged the concern but said some element of risk was inevitable as the US emerges from the pandemic.
“We knew that there was going to be a time where we had the majority of Americans who wanted to be vaccinated and yet the children were not going to be eligible,” Walensky told CNN’s State of the Union.
“This week we got news that we can vaccinate our 12- to 15-year-olds. We hope by the fall, by the end of this year, we’ll have vaccine eligible at even younger ranges. We recognize the challenge of parents who can’t leave their kids at home to go shopping, those kids should continue to wear masks in those settings and to the best of their ability to keep a distance. Those recommendations have not changed.”
She repeated her assertion that it was “individual guidance”.
“I want to convey that we are not saying that everybody has to take off their mask if they’re vaccinated,” she said. “It’s been 16 months that we’ve been telling people to mask and this is going to be a slow process.
“The other thing is that every community is not the same, not all communities have vaccination rates that are high. These decisions have to be made at the community level”.
Dr Anthony Fauci, Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, told CBS’s Face the Nation the changed guidance was underpinned by “an accumulation of data”, including that the vaccines’ effectiveness had proved “even better than in the clinical trials”.
Also, he said, “a number of papers have come out showing the vaccine protects even against the variants that are circulating, and we’re seeing that it is very unlikely that a vaccinated person, even if there’s a breakthrough infection, would transmit to someone else.”
Fauci was referring to eight vaccinated members of the New York Yankees baseball team who tested positive but exhibited no symptoms.
He did, however, appear to acknowledge the sudden switch of advice had been confusing. The CDC, Fauci said, will be “coming out very quickly with individual types of guidances, so people will say, ‘Well, what about the workplace? What about this, what about that?’
“That’s going to be clarified pretty quickly I would imagine. Within just a couple of weeks you’re gonna start to see significant clarification of some of the actually understandable and reasonable questions that people are asking.”