Story at a glance

  • The CDC has new guidelines for people vaccinated for the novel coronavirus.
  • Vaccinated people do not need to wear a mask or physically distance themselves from others.
  • They also do not need to get tested to travel or quarantine when returning from travel.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced new guidelines for fully vaccinated people about wearing face masks. The guidance said that fully vaccinated people "no longer need to wear a mask or physically distance in any setting, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance."

The update also says that "fully vaccinated people can refrain from testing following a known exposure unless they are residents or employees of a correctional or detention facility or a homeless shelter." Additionally, the guidance suggests that fully vaccinated people don’t need to get tested before traveling domestically or internationally and don’t need to self-quarantine after traveling.

These are big, expected changes, but they may be a bit of an adjustment for some people. One of the main worries is that it is difficult to partially enforce mask rules on only a subset of individuals. There currently aren’t guidelines or recommendations for how to require unvaccinated people to comply with wearing masks.


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In addition, the vaccination efforts have plateaued in areas where a large proportion of the population is hesitant to get the vaccine or has already decided that they do not want to get vaccinated. Some local governments have come up with clever ways to help people get vaccinated, such as Ohio, which has set up a lottery-like situation, or New York putting convenient vaccination sites at subway stations.

"But the concern for many is that we still have a lot of cases in the U.S. Only 35% of the population is fully vaccinated, there is global vaccine inequity, new variants, and truly operationalizing this new guidance is hard," Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease epidemiologist and assistant professor at George Mason University, told Refinery29.

A poll from Axios/Ipsos suggests that 57 percent of all people will wear a mask when they leave their home. For unvaccinated folks, about 47 percent said they wear a mask at all times when they are out. Even if you are vaccinated, it would be worrisome if unvaccinated people don’t wear masks. Large swaths of the population have not yet been vaccinated, including children and immunocompromised people. People who are unvaccinated could carry and spread the coronavirus, and that would allow the coronavirus to continue to survive in the population.

A poll from Economist/YouGov released on May 6 found that 63 percent of "vaccine-refusers believe it is safe for unvaccinated people to socialize indoors with other unvaccinated people without wearing a mask." Out of people who’ve received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, 38 percent believed it was safe for vaccinated people to socialize indoors with other vaccinated people without masks.

This summer’s activities might add more complexity to the national situation. More than 40 percent vaccinated respondents to the Economist/YouGov poll said they had plans to travel this summer. For unvaccinated respondents, about 30 percent had travel plans. And for people who refuse vaccines, 38 percent said they will travel.

People who are vaccinated may feel their freedom returning, but if the coronavirus continues to spread among unmasked, unvaccinated people, that could lead to new variants and new surges in cases. Vaccinated individuals may be protected by the vaccines for now, but we can only guess what will happen in the future if a large proportion of the population remains unvaccinated.

And many people who are vaccinated will choose to continue wearing masks even though they may not need to.

Popescu says, "Ultimately, I believe it’s important to communicate that while this guidance applies to those fully vaccinated, you can still wear a mask based off your risk tolerance and that if people are wearing masks, you shouldn’t make assumptions regarding vaccination status."


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Published on May 18, 2021