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CDC says vaccinated people can take masks off indoors and outdoors

People who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 can safely resume life without any restrictions, according to long-awaited federal guidance released Thursday.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says if you are fully vaccinated — two weeks past the last required COVID-19 vaccine dose — you don't need to wear masks indoors or outside, and you don't need to maintain physical distance.

The change is a monumental shift in how the agency has communicated about the risks of the coronavirus and the benefits of vaccines, and is a major step towards reopening America in time for the July 4th holiday.

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Essentially, for vaccinated people, life can begin to return to normal.

"Anyone who is fully vaccinated, can participate in indoor and outdoor activities, large or small, without wearing a mask or physical distancing," CDC Director Rochelle WalenskyRochelle WalenskyStudy: Older Americans saw larger declines in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths after vaccine became available Overnight Health Care: Biden 'very confident' in Fauci amid conservative attacks | House Dems press Biden on global vaccinations | CDC director urges parents to vaccinate adolescents New York plans to loosen school mask rules as soon as Monday MORE said during a White House briefing. "If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic. We have all longed for this moment, when we can get back to some sense of normalcy."

The new guidelines do not apply to health care settings, correctional facilities or homeless shelters, the agency said. People will also need to follow local business and workplace guidances, so masks are likely to continue to be required in private businesses.

In addition, CDC emphasized fully vaccinated people should still wear well-fitted masks where required by laws, rules and regulations, including on airplanes, trains and public transportation.

It also urged those who are immune-compromised to speak with their doctors before giving up their masks.

The update comes as the agency has been criticized for being too slow to react to changing science, overly cautious and even contradictory in its recommendations to the public.

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More than 117 million Americans are now fully vaccinated, which is about 35 percent of the population. New cases are down by a third over the last two weeks, and daily deaths have dropped to the lowest point since April 2020.

But the announcement puts even more pressure on businesses and local governments. There is no way to know who is vaccinated and who is not, and the idea of some kind of "vaccine passport" or digital identifier has become a partisan flashpoint vehemently opposed by Republicans.

States across the country have been easing restrictions and reopening businesses as local vaccination rates increase, despite the CDC and federal health officials who continued to urge caution. 

Health experts said they feared the agency's overly conservative approach could result in fewer people getting shots, if they failed to show the benefits of being vaccinated. 

The agency relaxed some of its rules for fully vaccinated people last month, but still advised wearing masks indoors in most public settings, and in many outdoor places.

That guidance included an elaborate color-coded chart for various activities that was widely mocked for being confusing and contradictory.

The agency's recent guidance on summer camps was also panned as being overly restrictive. 

The CDC had said masks should be worn at all times, even outdoors, by everyone, including vaccinated adults and children as young as 2 years old.

Walensky denied that the changes were being made because of the criticism, or as an incentive to get more people vaccinated. 

"We follow the science here," Walensky said. "While this may serve as an incentive for some people to get vaccinated, that is not the purpose."

She said additional data in the past few weeks has shown the effectiveness of the vaccines in the real world, the vaccines work against variants, and vaccinated people are unlikely to transmit the virus.

But as recently as Wednesday evening, the message hadn't changed.

During an interview with CNBC's Shepard Smith, Walensky said that masks were still advised for people indoors, even if they were fully vaccinated, because the science wasn't clear if the vaccine worked against COVID-19 variants or whether vaccinated people could be asymptomatic carriers.

—Updated at 3:15 p.m.