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CDC mask update sparks confusion, opposition

The Hill logo The Hill 5/18/2021 Justine Coleman
a group of stuffed animals: CDC mask update sparks confusion, opposition © Getty CDC mask update sparks confusion, opposition

New federal guidelines by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that suggest fully vaccinated people can go without masks in most indoor situations and outdoors has sparked confusion amid the general public, faced resistance by some health experts and imposed inconsistencies among businesses and local jurisdictions.

Health experts expressed shock in the days following the CDC's updated guidance, with some arguing the loosened recommendations go too far and risk jeopardizing the country's recovery from the pandemic.

Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University, said she thinks the CDC went "one step way too far" and should have limited its update to what fully vaccinated people can do around other fully vaccinated people because they're more protected from contracting COVID-19.

"If they had just stuck to that point, we wouldn't be in this mess," she said. "But unfortunately they then had to add that vaccinated people don't need to be wearing masks, which has then devolved into the understanding now across the country that mask mandates don't need to be there anymore."

Wen, a former Baltimore city health commissioner, said at this point, the toothpaste is "already out of the tube" and encouraged the administration to "be very clear" that the pandemic is not over and mask mandates are necessary if people cannot prove their vaccinations.

"Ultimately, I think this is the fault of the White House for not reining in the CDC and feeding such a broad level of responsibility to an agency that's not capable ... of understanding the broad-ranging implications of their actions," she added.

Chris Beyrer, a professor of epidemiology and infectious disease at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said the biggest driver of confusion was the lack of singular guidance that applies to all people, whether vaccinated or not.

"It's always a challenge when you don't have one message for the public," he said.

"What we've seen, unfortunately, is that there's been confusion all along," he added. "There's been divergence all along. There's been politicization of mask-wearing, of social distancing, even of immunization."

National Nurses United, the largest registered nurse union in the U.S., denounced the CDC guidance, saying it put patients, front-line workers and nurses at risk of getting COVID-19.

"The CDC should have followed the science and the precautionary principle and maintained their Covid guidance on masks, testing, and isolation for vaccinated individuals further," Jane Thomason, the union's lead industrial hygienist, said in an email.


Video: CDC updates face mask guidance as U.S. COVID cases decline (CBS News)

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CDC said in its announcement that people should keep wearing masks on public transportation and in medical and health care settings.

In response to the update, some states have dropped restrictions on mask-wearing, contributing to the growing uncertainty about expectations for face coverings across the country.

Both Maryland and Virginia ended their indoor mask mandates on Friday to align with the CDC guidance, with Washington, D.C., following in their footsteps on Monday.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced that his state, which was once the epicenter of skyrocketing COVID-19 cases early in the pandemic, would end the indoor mask requirement starting on Wednesday.

Other states, which were also once epicenters, are delaying any changes. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) is keeping the indoor mask mandate in place for now and California postponed a lift of its mask order until mid-June to prepare residents for the adjustment.

But administration officials have defended the updated guidance, saying it is based on science, reflects the vaccines' effectiveness and signals a step closer toward normalcy.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Monday responded to criticism on the updated mask recommendations.

"The CDC director promised the American people that she would convey the latest science to them as she knew it, that she would not delay, that she would not be impacted by politics or influenced by political pressure on the White House or elsewhere," Psaki said. "And that's exactly what she did."

Walensky also justified the guidelines in appearances on Sunday morning political news shows, denying on "Fox News Sunday" that political pressure played a role in the decision and telling NBC's "Meet the Press" that the federal government is not "counting on vaccine mandates at all."

Almost 60 percent of all American adults have received at least one dose of the vaccine, with 47 percent being fully vaccinated, according to CDC data. Out of the total U.S. population, 47 percent have had at least one dose, and 37 percent are fully vaccinated. At the same time, daily COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths have declined in recent weeks.

While celebrating the progress in administering vaccines the last four months, President Biden also said Monday that there are "too many unvaccinated people in America," warning that could lead to pockets of outbreaks.

"If the unvaccinated get vaccinated, they'll protect themselves and other unvaccinated people around them," he said. "If they do not, states with low vaccination rates may see those [case] rates go up, may see this progress reversed. Ultimately, those who are not vaccinated will end up paying the price."

The CDC's announcement also left it up to businesses to figure out how they would implement the new guidance, as companies cannot determine who is fully vaccinated and who is not without proof of vaccination.

Retailers such as Target, Walmart, Trader Joe's, Starbucks, Costco and Publix adjusted their policies to make masks optional for those who are fully vaccinated. Disney and Universal Orlando both declared their amusement parks would only require masks in indoor spaces.

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