Health and Science

CDC director defends telling fully vaccinated they can go without masks amid confusion in states, cities

Key Points
  • CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky called for people to be honest and ditch their masks only if they are fully vaccinated.
  • The sudden change in CDC guidance last week left some people confused as it does not lift local mask ordinances.
  • Local governments and businesses are grappling with whether to follow the CDC's new guidance. Some feel its premature.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky is seen during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing to discuss the on-going federal response to COVID-19, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., May 11, 2021.
Greg Nash | Pool | Reuters

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky defended the agency's decision to tell people who are fully vaccinated against Covid-19 they can go without a mask as state and local officials grapple with whether to follow suit.

"We are asking people to be honest with themselves," Walensky said on NBC's "Meet the Press" which aired Sunday. "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."

The CDC's recommendation has created some confusion because it does not lift local mask mandates. States, municipalities and businesses can make the choice whether or not to follow it. There's also no definitive way to track who has received a vaccine, forcing businesses to work on a sort of honor system.

"This was not permission to shed masks for everybody everywhere. This was really science driven, individual assessment of your risk," Walensky said Sunday morning on NBC's "Meet the Press."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance Thursday, saying it's safe for fully vaccinated Americans to remove their masks in most settings, whether they are outside or indoors. It's the first time in more than a year that the federal government has encouraged ditching masks, and marks a major turning point for the pandemic.

Masks are still required on planes, buses and public transportation.

White House chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci reaffirmed the guidance while appearing on CBS's "Face The Nation" later in the morning.

"There's been an accumulation of data showing the real world effectiveness of the vaccines," Fauci said. "It's even better than in the clinical trials, well over 90% protecting you against the disease."

"Even though there are breakthrough infections with vaccinated people, almost always the people are asymptomatic, and the level of virus is so low, it makes it extremely unlikely, not impossible but very, very low likelihood they are going to transmit it," Fauci said. 

President Joe Biden, who was criticized last month for not removing his mask after the CDC said fully vaccinated Americans could go outdoors without them, has followed the new guidance. Biden shared a picture Sunday afternoon of him meeting maskless with six people in the Oval Office sometime last week.

Still, some states have decided to keep mask mandates in place for now. New Jersey and Hawaii will ask people to continue to wear masks indoors.

National Nurses United, which calls itself the largest union of registered nurses in the U.S., condemned the CDC's guidelines in a statement Friday, calling on the agency to revise guidance.

"This newest CDC guidance is not based on science, does not protect public health, and threatens the lives of patients, nurses, and other frontline workers across the country," NNU Executive Director Bonnie Castillo said in a statement. She added that relaxing mask rules will disproportionally harm people of color.

"Now is not the time to relax protective measures, and we are outraged that the CDC has done just that while we are still in the midst of the deadliest pandemic in a century," Castillo said.

The CDC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Some states are heeding the CDC's advice. Illinois, Connecticut, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington, Minnesota, Nevada, Kentucky and Oregon have all said they would relax their mask rules. Texas had lifted its mask mandates before the CDC's recommendation.

Officials from New York and California, two of the hardest hit states, are currently reviewing the CDC's changes and have not yet given guidance, meaning mandates are still in place.

Some retailers, including TargetGap, Home Depot and Ulta Beauty, have also said they'll keep pandemic protocols in place.

"Essential workers are still forced to play mask police for shoppers who are unvaccinated and refuse to follow local COVID safety measures. Are they now supposed to become the vaccination police?," Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, said in a statement shared with CNBC on Friday.

Fauci said the CDC will be coming out in the next couple of weeks with more clarification on when masks are appropriate.

As of Friday, more than 156 million Americans have received at least one dose of a Covid vaccine, according to the CDC. About 121 million are fully vaccinated, according to the agency.