WASHINGTON: The top US health agency on Thursday announced it was lifting mask-wearing requirements for people fully vaccinated against Covid-19, a watershed moment in the pandemic.
“Anyone who is fully vaccinated can participate in indoor and outdoor activities, large or small, without wearing a mask or physical distancing,” said Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky.
“If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic.”
The move, which comes more than a year after the federal government recommended people cover their faces in public, follows accumulating data showing the extremely high efficacy of vaccines, not just to prevent symptomatic Covid-19 but also infection.
It sparked joyful reactions in some, while others were cautious and said they would keep their masks on in public out of caution, despite being fully vaccinated.
In the rare case that someone who is fully vaccinated becomes infected, research has shown they are unlikely to have a high viral load in their nose and therefore to transmit the disease onward.
According to the CDC’s website, masks may still be required on planes, buses, trains, and other forms of public transportation travelling into, within, or out of the US, and in US transportation hubs such as airports and stations.
Fully vaccinated international travellers arriving in the US still need to get tested within three days of their flight or show documentation of recovery from Covid-19 in the past three months.
Walensky said people who are immune-compromised should talk to their doctor before giving up their mask.
It has been shown that immune-compromised people do not respond as well to vaccines.
Finally, she added, the guidance was subject to change if the situation gets worse.
Falling cases, rising vaccinations
The move comes as Covid cases are declining quickly while vaccinations continue to rise slowly but surely in the US, the former epicentre of the pandemic.
Around 59% of adults have received at least one dose, while the country is reporting around 38,000 daily new cases – a per capita rate of 11 new cases per 100,000 people, well below global hotspots and falling fast.
Public health authorities were cautious about vaccines’ ability to stop transmission back when they were first rolled out in December, because the clinical trials they went through were only designed to test their efficacy against symptomatic disease.
Now, however, studies like a paper from Israel have shown there was a 94% reduction in asymptomatic infection.
Because the outbreak itself is declining, the actual rate of so-called “breakthrough infections” is very, very low.
“For somebody who’s already been fully vaccinated, they can wear the mask out of solidarity or in a symbolic sense, but their wearing a mask indoors is not benefiting anyone else,” explained Vinay Prasad, an epidemiologist and biostatistician at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF).
There is another good reason to ease restrictions, and that is to motivate people who are hesitant to roll up their sleeves, said Angela Rasmussen, of the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organisation in Canada.
This is becoming more important as the rate of vaccination in the US has fallen from its early April peak and supply is outstripping demand in many regions.