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Fully vaccinated people are exhaling this weekend, ditching masks and easing up on social distancing, per the latest Covid-19 guidance put out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The new advice marks a significant milestone in the nation’s effort to stamp out the disease, and signals the beginning of a return to normalcy. But scientists say there are good reasons not to toss out your mask stash just yet.

“It’s important to not see this change as a signal that this means that the pandemic is over or that there is no capacity for policy reversals in the future,” said William Hanage, an epidemiologist at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Given the incredible efficacy of the vaccines — in particular the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines — and the impact they’re having on bringing down Covid cases, it makes sense to give immunized people something back, he said. And in light of recent vaccination slowdowns, it could provide an extra incentive to anyone who is eligible but still holding off. But Hanage said the policy shift is as much about the changing weather as it is about vaccines.

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“It’s a reflection of how much of a better place we’re in now than we were, but it’s a reflection too of the decreased transmission we expect to see over the summer months,” he said. And that means that people should prepare for Covid restrictions to be revisited in the fall, especially given uncertainties around how emerging variants will impact vaccines’ effectiveness in preventing disease spread. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine in particular, said Hanage, appears to be less effective at blocking transmission.

“There is a certain advantage to normalizing behaviors, like mask-wearing, that are going to be useful if we encounter any sort of bumps in the road in terms of variants or a serious seasonal effect,” he said.

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Aerosol scientists like Linsey Marr, at Virginia Tech, point out that adopting a culture of occasional mask-wearing could have benefits that extend beyond the pandemic. “Not only does a mask help with COVID-19, but it also helps with other respiratory viruses, particulate air pollution, and pollen,” she told STAT via email. Colder, drier air brings with it the risks of other respiratory infections, including colds and the flu. With the world hunkering down last winter, most of those diseases declined drastically. Some disease modelers are predicting that could portend more severe flu seasons in the future. Masks would help mitigate those risks. (So would getting your flu shot.)

The CDC’s updated guidance advises vaccinated people that they can drop the masks in all outdoor and indoor settings, with the exception of hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, homeless shelters, prisons and jails, and planes, trains, and any other form of public transportation. But citizens are still subject to local masking requirements. Governors in about half of U.S. states had already lifted mask mandates. More are expected to expire at the end of this month.

Marr, for her part, was surprised the CDC’s move to unmasking came so soon. Not because the science isn’t solid, but because it’s such an abrupt shift. “I think it would have made more sense to give people and businesses advance warning,” she wrote. “So that those who have not had a chance to get vaccinated have time to get fully vaccinated before the change.” That includes the millions of 12- to 15-year-olds who only became eligible to receive Pfizer’s vaccine last week.

At least for now, children under the age of 12 don’t have access to any vaccine, so they will still be at risk of infection. So will millions of cancer patients, those with chronic illness, and other immunocompromised individuals — Covid-19 vaccines either aren’t recommended, or they just don’t work very well. Mask requirements made it easier for them to navigate public spaces with confidence that any contagious people they might encounter had at least a few layers of material strapped to their faces blocking the majority of infectious aerosols from flooding their shared air.

“For Covid, because it’s mostly respiratory transmission, the mask is what does the job when you’re closer to other people,” said Ann Petru, a pediatric infectious disease physician at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland, Calif. Although kids tend to tolerate Covid-19 infections better than adults, the risk of bad outcomes is not zero. More than 300 have died, and roughly 15,000 have been hospitalized — far more than in a typical flu season. She worries that the honor system will allow unvaccinated adults to seize the opportunity to go mask-free, making indoor spaces where infectious aerosols can accumulate that much riskier for vulnerable individuals.

“A global statement for all of society is going to be overinterpreted by the wrong groups and then there will be more cases because people are not going to be protecting themselves as well,” said Petru. “So I don’t think it’s time to throw masks away in any kind of social scene where you’re indoors with others.”

  • The mask wearing has proven to really lower the flu incidence, so it is just smart to keep them handy for flu seasons. And why not? Wearing masks is such an itty-bitty really minuscule effort – I laugh at those having a real problem with their “freedom” infringement. They are SO childish and selfish.

    • I disagree. I have worn one every day that I’ve been in the city for the past 15 months but never in the country where I am far from others. Feels like a muzzle to me. Can’t wait for it to collect dust.

  • Speaking of masks, when will the N95s finally be back on the shelves of your friendly neighborhood hardware store at anything close to pre-covid prices? It was bad enough (but understandable, I guess) that we got caught by surprise 15 months ago, but when will we see the effects of the ramp up in production and the decrease in cases? this summer? this fall? 2022? never?

  • I think the CDC made a mistake with it’s recent change in guidance. I would like to know how many people who are opposed to mask wearing are also opposed to being vaccinated. I suspect there is considerable overlap between these two points of view. If so, that means a lot of the mask-less people frequenting stores under the new guidelines will probably not be vaccinated. What does this mean for people whose health is compromised by age or preexisting conditions? It means they will be less safe when shopping even if they are wearing a mask. Given the current political climate, it’s easy to imagine that many of the people wearing a mask in the mask -free stores will have been vaccinated, while most of those without masks will not have been.

  • Any time someone is quoted suggesting we should persist with perpetual seasonal masking there should be pushback. We wore masks precisely because “this is not the flu.” If we, through vaccinations, shift the overall risk profile of the disease to one comparable with the flu, then we’re back to pre-pandemic times. People can certainly wear masks, or helmets, while walking around as they see fit. Any type of societal expectation shifting to shame those who don’t wear masks in the colder months deserves resistance (as does any mandates to reinstate on said basis). This is different than if COVID-19 does have a resurgence in hospitalizations and deaths. Increasing cases backstopped against severe outcomes is not a cause to reinstate pandemic level measures. Otherwise the next pandemic you’ll have no tools in your toolkit.

  • I thought with the new leadership in CDC, it won’t be committing numerous blunders like the previous CDC under Redfield. But it seems, it terms of data reporting, it got worse.

    And asking people to stop wearing mask too early put the children under 12 at risk, since they are not qualified for vaccination. It seems nothing improve in CDC, it is still the same old incompetent organization. The previous CDC did a lot of damage to Trump administration. It looks like this new CDC is on track to do a lot of damage to Biden administration. Somebody needs to shutdown CDC and create a new functioning body that can adapt to pandemic.

  • I was fully vaxxed 8 weeks ago, and you’re effectively tell me that I was a complete sucker and must wear a mask forever because the Karens are worried? NO!

    • Not the Karens—the parents. I’ve got a baby and a 6 year old.

      This decision meant that I had to walk my kid out of a toy store, which was the highlight of his week for being very good, because the cashier wasn’t wearing a mask. What am I supposed to do, ask for the guys vaccination card? Nope, we are again placing the burden on risk to children because adults can’t be bothered to have a conscience and protect the vulnerable for a little longer. I gave birth in a mask, you can wear one indoors where you might encounter children or cancer patients.

  • The clueless and harmful CDC have once again created a blunders against the advised of medical experts. Just when they finally admitted that SARS-2 is airborne, they are saying people can remove their mask. And lets not believe the honor system that only vaccinated people will take of there mask.

    The following study is very interesting, although it had not been proven to be true in real life. But since virus does exchange genomes, maybe the there is a possibility that SARS2 can incorporate their genome to human DNA. Human DNA does share common genome with fungi.

    If they study is correct, they the mRNA and DNA vaccine, how much of those genomes what incorporate into the human DNA ?

    Instead of the clueless “experts” denying it right away. It is worth it to look into the possibility especially that both the vaccine and SARS2 genes can integrate into the human chromosomes. Maybe other virus can also behave the same. As such it is worth it to keep wearing mask even if someone is vaccinated.

    https://science.sciencemag.org/content/sci/372/6543/674.full.pdf

  • Those clever CDC people. The aim of this move is to flush out the opportunistic free riders who had been hoping to get through the epidemic without risking the vaccines themselves while letting the others get vaccinated and assume the risks. Now the world is becoming dangerous for the unvaccinated.

    • nothing wrong with that. if, in the future, my vaccinated self happens to catch COVID from some maskless unvaccinated (by choice) goober and I happen to pass it to another maskless unvaccinated (by choice) goober that’s not on me — they have every opportunity to protect themselves and their families. If they infect their families – that’s their fault, not mine.
      If they survive, they’ll have antibodies, just like us vaccinated folks, and now contribute to potential herd immunity despite all their conscious attempts to abstain from taking responsibility for themselves and their effect on those around them.

    • Not true, if someone completely protect themselves as they protect themselves before the era of the vaccine, then it is still safe for the unvaccinated.

      People with compromise immune system and on steroids are not advised to get vaccinated since study found that some of them does not develop antibodies.

      CDC is clueless and harmful as always. Just when they finally admitted, after a year, that SARS-2 can be transmitted by air, they asked people to remove mask. Some lawmakers needs to defund CDC.

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