Experts are warning about the unintended consequences of the CDC mask guidance

How should businesses respond to the CDC's surprise announcement that fully vaccinated people can ditch the mask in most situations?

Posted: May 17, 2021 4:01 AM
Updated: May 17, 2021 4:01 AM

Communities across the US ushered in a quick return to normalcy over the weekend as the country responded to the latest mask guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The agency said Thursday fully vaccinated Americans don't need to wear masks or social distance indoors or outdoors, with some exceptions, triggering announcements nationwide from state leaders and businesses who lifted their mask requirements for people who've gotten their Covid-19 shots.

But with a big part of the country still unvaccinated, some experts say the move came too fast and has resulted in many more Americans now shedding their masks than the CDC recommended.

"I think the CDC meant to say something really good, which is these vaccines are really protective," emergency physician and CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen told CNN on Sunday. "The thing is though, there were unintended consequences of their actions."

"We've seen governors and mayors and business owners drop mask mandates, and as a result of that we've now made life much less safe for people who are unvaccinated, for immuno-compromised individuals and for young children who cannot yet be vaccinated," Wen added.

Emergency physician Dr. Megan Ranney also expressed concern over the weekend about the Americans who haven't yet gotten a shot because of challenges with access, and how they may be affected by local leaders and business leaders lifting mask requirements.

"I would urge businesses to keep those mask mandates in place as long as possible in their businesses to protect their workers," she told CNN. "It's particularly an equity issue. We know that Black and Brown folks across the United States who are most often our frontline employees with public facing jobs, are also those who have had the hardest time accessing the vaccines."

More than 47% of the US population has gotten at least one Covid-19 vaccine dose and more than 37% is fully vaccinated, CDC data shows.

'Not everybody has to rip off their mask'

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told CNN on Sunday the agency's new guidelines don't mean that every American who's been vaccinated should take their masks off.

For example, Walensky said immuno-compromised people and others at higher risk should consult with their physicians before deciding to stop wearing a mask.

"Not everybody has to rip off their mask because our guidance changed," she said. "If you are concerned, please do consult your physician before you take off your mask."

Walensky also said different communities across the US have different vaccination rates and different Covid-19 case rates, and people should take that into account when deciding whether to mask up or not.

She added that the CDC is asking businesses to make sure they help their employees get vaccinated so that they are safe.

Over the weekend, the agency also said schools should continue masking and using other coronavirus prevention strategies for at least the rest of this school year. Those strategies will be needed because students -- the ones who are authorized to receive a shot -- won't be fully vaccinated by the end of the academic year, the CDC said.

The Food and Drug Administration expanded the emergency use authorization for Pfizer's Covid-19 vaccine last week to include people 12 to 15 years old. Children under the age of 12 are not yet eligible to receive a Covid-19 vaccine in the US.

Children who are not vaccinated against the virus will still need to wear masks in the classroom in the fall, Dr. Anthony Fauci said Friday.

"The unvaccinated group, or the elementary school children -- nothing has really changed for them," Fauci said.

CDC got messaging wrong, expert says

There's a key part missing that could have helped make this guidance clearer for Americans and not led some communities to have to rely on the honor system, one expert said.

"The CDC has gotten the science right, but they've gotten the messaging wrong," Dr. Jonathan Reiner, a professor of medicine and surgery at George Washington University, told CNN on Sunday.

While those fully vaccinated are "basically immune" to the virus, Reiner said, the question is how do communities keep others protected -- like children who aren't able to get the vaccine yet, or immuno-compromised Americans who may still be at risk.

"The way you would protect them, ideally, would be to know who's vaccinated and who's not vaccinated, and the unvaccinated folks would still be required to wear a mask. And this is where politics comes in," Reiner said. "If we had had a very simple electronic system from the beginning, basically you have a pass on your phone that turns green after you've been vaccinated, businesses and venues all over the country would be able to say, 'Good news, if you have a green pass you don't need to wear a mask.'"

"We don't have that, so how do we go forward?"

The guidance issued last week, Walensky said, was just a first step to help local and state leaders make their own recommendations moving forward.

The agency is asking people to "take their health into their own hands" and get vaccinated so they don't continue to be at risk, Walensky said in an interview on ABC's "This Week."

"For the unvaccinated, our policy has not changed," she added. "We were going to get to a place in this pandemic where vaccinated people were going to be able to take off their mask. We're lucky to be there with the science that we have, and now we have to take this foundational step that is completely based in science and understand what it means as we open the entire country."

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