In what should have been — and was for many — a celebratory moment in the history of the pandemic, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week announced people vaccinated against COVID-19 could go without face masks in most situations.
“Fully vaccinated people can resume activities without wearing a mask or physically distancing, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal or territorial laws, rules and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance,” the CDC stated.
It was a ticket to normal after months of what felt like being trapped in an alien world.
But even before the cheers died down, confusion, criticism and much philosophizing arose about whether we could trust others, who hadn’t been vaccinated, to wear masks.
Last week, The Washington Post in a report posed this question: “The new mask guidance relies on an honor system. Do we trust each other enough to make it work?”
“In an intensely polarized nation, many people have little faith that their maskless fellow Americans have actually been vaccinated,” The Post said. “That lack of trust, fueled by the ongoing politicization of the pandemic, tears at the fabric of a public-health strategy built on the assumption that other people will do the right thing.”
Then there’s the question about whether wearing a mask will make people assume you haven’t gotten your shots.
All this is missing the essential point about the CDC’s guidelines and continues to reinforce the “Us and Them” COVID camps.
The question isn’t about trusting your fellow shopper in the grocery store — it’s about trusting the efficacy of the vaccines and the reasons behind the decision of the cautious CDC.
The CDC based the decision on the current state of the pandemic in the United States and evidence vaccines are extremely effective.
“That science, in conjunction with all the epidemiological data that we have, really says now is the moment,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told NPR last week.
Walensky noted the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the United States have declined significantly in recent weeks. That suggests that because of vaccination — and because some people are immune because of previous infection with the coronavirus — the pandemic is gradually coming under control, she told NPR.
What we know, at least through the CDC, is:
• All COVID-19 vaccines available in the United States are effective at preventing COVID-19 as seen in clinical trial settings;
• Research provides growing evidence that mRNA COVID-19 vaccines offer similar protection in real-world conditions;
• COVID-19 vaccination is an important tool to help stop the COVID-19 pandemic;
• COVID-19 vaccination helps protect people from getting sick or severely ill with COVID-19 and might also help protect people around them;
• To receive the most protection, people should receive all recommended doses of a COVID-19 vaccine;
• Some people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 still will get sick because no vaccine is 100 percent effective. Experts continue to monitor and evaluate how often this occurs, how severe illnesses are, and how likely a vaccinated person is to spread COVID-19 to others.
Walensky went on to cite recent studies of health care workers as evidence that vaccines provide excellent protection against disease. A CDC study published Friday found that across 33 sites, vaccinated health care personnel were much less likely to get sick with COVID-19 than those who were unvaccinated.
The truth is, the CDC’s guideline individualizes our approaches to COVID, which frightens some people. But health officials know that reluctance to loosen restrictions as more people are vaccinated undermines faith in the vaccines.
Dr. Brett Giroir, a pediatrician who served as the assistant secretary for health under former President Donald Trump, in April cautioned that President Joe Biden was sending “confusing” messages and might have been undermining faith in the COVID-19 vaccines by continuing to wear a mask — even when he was outdoors, according to reports.
Biden received the first dose of the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine against the coronavirus in a televised appointment in late December.
“I do think there’s so many mixed messages out there, and the data are really clear,” Giroir said in an April interview with Fox News. “If you’re vaccinated and the people around you are vaccinated, your chances of dying of COVID are much less than dying of just a car crash going out in the street — our normal daily activities.”
Vaccines don’t mean we should walk around licking doorknobs or otherwise wantonly exposing ourselves to the virus. People who are immunocompromised or for whatever reason aren’t fully vaccinated should continue to take precautions, health officials warn.
But most people who want vaccines have received them or can get them soon. Health officials have more supply than demand these days and are focusing on homebound and underserved communities.
That means we’re all going to have to accept that most people who intend to get the vaccine have gotten them or are arranging to get them already.
If not now, then when should we ditch the masks?
As Walensky said. “Now is the moment.”
• Laura Elder