You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

CDC says vaccinated people don’t need masks indoors. Will California follow suit?

San Francisco Chronicle logo San Francisco Chronicle 5/14/2021 By Catherine Ho and Aidin Vaziri

Fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks or physically distance indoors or outdoors in most circumstances to protect themselves against the coronavirus, federal health officials said Thursday — setting the stage for California to loosen its mask mandates and distancing guidelines for vaccinated residents.

“If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a White House COVID-19 briefing. “We have all longed for this moment when we can get back to some sense of normalcy.”

She added, “Anyone who is fully vaccinated can participate in indoor and outdoor activities — large or small — without wearing a mask or physically distancing.”

The California Department of Public Health on Thursday did not say whether or when it would adopt the new federal guidelines. The state typically follows the CDC’s COVID-19 recommendations. But with masking rules, the Bay Area and state have previously gone further than the federal government, instituting local mandates in the absence of a federal one.

“The state is reviewing the new CDC guidance on masking requirements,” the department said in a statement. “With over 33 million vaccines administered and one of the lowest case rates in the country, California continues to encourage all eligible Californians to get vaccinated as the state looks to fully reopen on June 15.”

The CDC’s change came one day after Gov. Gavin Newsom appeared to walk back a comment that “businesses large and small” would be able to let in people without masks when the state lifts its pandemic restrictions on June 15. On Wednesday, the governor said that some indoor mask mandates and guidelines would probably still be in effect.

California currently does not require vaccinated people to wear masks outdoors, except at crowded settings such as sporting events.

Fully vaccinated people do not have to wear masks indoors or outdoors with other fully vaccinated people, or when visiting unvaccinated low-risk people from a single household, under the current California guidelines. People are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after the second shot of the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, or two weeks after the single shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

The CDC’s Walensky said unvaccinated people will have to keep their masks on for the time being.

“The science is also very clear about unvaccinated people,” she said. “You remain at risk of mild or severe illness, of death, or spreading the disease to others. You should still mask, and you should get vaccinated right away.”

Walensky said the CDC was encouraged by falling case rates nationwide, as well as the increasing availability of vaccines to adults and the new eligibility of children as young as 12 to get shots.

“And we have had a coalescence of more science that has emerged just in the last week,” she said. “The science has been in three areas. One is the effectiveness of the vaccines in general and in a real-world population. One is the effectiveness against variants, which was just published last week, and then the effectiveness in preventing transmissibility.”

Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease expert at UCSF who consulted with the Biden administration on its coronavirus guidance, said it makes sense to allow vaccinated people to go without masks.

“We have ample evidence at this point that vaccines block transmission — by blocking asymptomatic infection — as evidenced by studies among health care workers, patients presenting for clinical care, first-line responders, nursing home residents and the general population,” she said. “Therefore, if a vaccinated individual is highly protected and cannot transmit the infection to others after vaccination, lifting masking and distancing requirements for this population makes sense.”

Walensky cautioned that the CDC may walk back the guidance if cases start to rise. “The past year has shown us that this virus can be unpredictable,” she said.

But Dr. George Rutherford, an infectious disease expert with UCSF, said there was little risk of the loosened rules leading to outbreaks.

“I don’t think we’re going to get any crazy stuff going on unless we get the emergence of really resistant variants,” he said.

California, in particular, is in a good place, Rutherford added.

“Given our levels of vaccination and naturally acquired immunity, I think we’re in pretty good shape,” he said.

About 47% of Californians 16 and older are fully vaccinated, according to state data. That proportion is slightly lower, 43%, when taking into account those 12 and older, as children as young as 12 just became eligible for vaccines Wednesday. Thirty-six percent of all Californians are fully vaccinated.

Nationally, about 36% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated. For some, that rate is still too low for comfort.

“The rate of vaccination is great. But it’s pretty exclusive. There are different groups that don’t have as great an uptake in getting vaccinated,” said Shannon Bennett, chief of science at the California Academy of Sciences. “We are sitting in a global landscape where whole countries aren’t anywhere near where we are.”

She said she would advocate for a more gradual approach to removing restrictions, given that scientists are still learning about the virus and its variants.

“I would say, let’s ease up on indoor restrictions but keep masks in place,” Bennett said. “We’re changing too many variables all at once. In science, you change one variable at a time and see what happens. You don’t change everything at once.”

It is unclear how a public indoor operation, such as a business or school, would determine if people are vaccinated, because most such settings do not require vaccine verification. Asked how venues would be able to tell who is vaccinated and who is not, Walensky said the CDC would be updating its guidance in these areas and that those decisions would be left up to local authorities.

Dr. Sara Cody, the Santa Clara County health officer, said she is increasingly confident that shedding masks outdoors is safe, but that “indoors is a bit more complicated.”

“Some environments will be poorly ventilated with mixed vaccination status, and it’s difficult to know what people’s vaccination status is,” she said. “What you don’t want is for people who are unvaccinated to be indoors and potentially infecting each other.”

She added that “when in doubt (indoors), mask up. If you don’t know whether everyone is vaccinated, throw on a mask.”

Walensky said the revised CDC guidance would have no immediate effect on mask mandates for public transit and air travel. The federal Transportation Security Administration recently extended its face mask requirement for airports and transit systems through Sept. 13.

Masks and distancing will also continue to be required for vaccinated people in hospitals, nursing homes, jails and prisons, and homeless shelters.

San Francisco Chronicle staff writer Erin Allday contributed to this report.

Catherine Ho and Aidin Vaziri are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: cho@sfchronicle.com, avaziri@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @Cat_Ho, @MusicSF

AdChoices
AdChoices

More from San Francisco Chronicle

San Francisco Chronicle
San Francisco Chronicle
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon