WASHINGTON (Reuters) – With new federal guidance allowing people to ditch their masks in most places, it will be up to individuals to decide how to protect themselves now that vaccines are readily available, top U.S. health officials said on Friday.
“What we’re really doing is empowering individuals to make decisions about their own health,” U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said. “If you are vaccinated and you’re making the decision to take off your mask … you are safe. If you are unvaccinated, then you’ve made the decision to take that risk.”
She said officials were still encouraging unvaccinated people to get their shots as soon as possible to protect themselves and others against the novel coronavirus that is still circulating even as cases decline.
“People who are unvaccinated should not be taking off their masks,” Walensky told CBS News’ “CBS This Morning” program. In mixed settings where people aren’t wearing masks, “It is the vaccinated people who will be protected.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease official, echoed the idea that looser recommendations should encourage people to get their COVID-19 shots so they can shed their masks.
“Hopefully this will be an incentive for people to get vaccinated,” Fauci, U.S. President Joe Biden’s chief medical officer, told MSNBC in an interview.
The CDC’s official recommendation on Thursday that fully vaccinated people could avoid wearing face masks indoors in most places marked a significant shift toward normalcy for the country, where more than half a million have died in the pandemic over the past year.
There are caveats. The looser mask guidance does not apply to certain situations such as public transportation and prisons. There is also no approved U.S. COVID-19 vaccine for children aged 11 and younger.
Former Food and Drug Administration commissioner and now Pfizer board member Scott Gottlieb told CNBC he backed the new policy given that half the U.S. states had a low case rate of 10 per 100,000 people per day and that vaccination rates were high in many places.
“This is going to provide a pretty strong incentive for a lot of people who were on the fence about getting vaccinated to go out and get vaccinated. I would not be surprised if we see a pretty big bump up in the number of people going out to get vaccinated because now being vaccinated provides more value: you can go around without a mask,” he said.
Many states had already relaxed mask mandates and other restrictions in recent weeks as case loads dropped.
While some retail locations may keep masks as a requirement for another two weeks, masks will likely no longer be required there either as we get into June, Gottlieb said.
(Reporting by Susan Heavey and Caroline Humer; Editing by Howard Goller)