Was CDC’s updated mask guidance too much, too soon?

May 18, 2021, 2:25 PM
mask, mariners...
Fully vaccinated fans, top right, sit in a separate section from socially distancing fans during the game between the Seattle Mariners and the Detroit Tigers at T-Mobile Park on May 17, 2021 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Your mask can come off if you’ve been fully vaccinated, according to updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But this update isn’t sitting well with some health officers, including in King County, and leaving others to question whether this step forward may have come too early.

King County health officer: Fully vaccinated should consider masking up in some settings

Did the CDC act too soon by telling people they can take off their masks if they’ve been fully vaccinated?

“So this is a tricky question because, scientifically, they didn’t really jump the gun,” explained Dr. Angela Rasmussen, virologist and weekly guest of KIRO Radio’s Gee and Ursula Show. “We do have pretty good evidence now that not only do the vaccines protect very effectively against being infected as well as from getting very sick, but in the few cases of breakthrough infections that we have — or infections of people who are already vaccinated — we know that they’re often asymptomatic or very mild.”

“So [the vaccines] keep people out of the hospital. They’re very effective. We also know, or we’re getting emerging evidence anyways, that suggests that people who are vaccinated who do get infected are not very capable of transmitting the virus to others because they don’t get very sick, they don’t develop really sustained productive infections, they’re not shedding enough virus to transmit the virus to others,” Rasmussen added.

The problem with the updated mask guidance, she explained, is not so much the science of what we know about the vaccines and how protected vaccinated people are, but rather the rate of vaccination and the prevalence of the virus.

“In many communities throughout the U.S., there is still fairly high prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 that’s circulating in the community,” she noted.

There are also a number of communities that do not have high vaccination rates and, nationwide, the majority of eligible people are not yet fully vaccinated.

“We are really kind of playing with fire and hoping that people are going to actually abide by these recommendations, that only people who are vaccinated will begin removing their masks in indoor situations,” Rasmussen said. “Unfortunately, that’s probably not going to always be the case because we also don’t have any type of system available for verifying somebody’s vaccine status.”

“So we really just have to take people’s words for it,” she added. “In communities where there’s still quite a lot of community transmission going on, and there’s a low rate of overall vaccination, this could potentially lead to some regional or community based resurgences.”

Washington transitions to ‘new normal’ as all counties can be in Phase 3

Dr. Rasmussen also points out that the guidance doesn’t take into account that there are a variety of reasons why there may be some people who are unvaccinated.

“There are many people who still want to get the vaccines that have not been able to get them because there are still disparities with vaccine access,” she said. “So I think what people should understand is that it is safe for vaccinated people to be in settings like that, but not everybody can be vaccinated, and we really do need to encourage mask wearing for people who are unvaccinated at minimum to make sure that they are protected.”

Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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Was CDC’s updated mask guidance too much, too soon?