WASHINGTON (AP) — In a striking move to send the country back toward pre-pandemic life, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday will ease indoor mask-wearing guidance for fully vaccinated people, allowing them to safely stop wearing masks inside in most places, according to a person briefed on the announcement.
The new guidance will still call for wearing masks in crowded indoor settings like buses, planes, hospitals, prisons and homeless shelters, but could ease restrictions for reopening workplaces, schools, and other venues — even removing the need for masks or social distancing for those who are fully vaccinated.
The CDC will also no longer recommend that fully vaccinated people wear masks outdoors in crowds. The announcement comes as the CDC and the Biden administration have faced pressure to ease restrictions on fully vaccinated people — people who are two weeks past their last required COVID-19 vaccine dose — in part to highlight the benefits of getting the shot.
The new guidance comes as the aggressive U.S. vaccination campaign begins to pay off. U.S. virus cases are at their lowest rate since September, deaths are at their lowest point since last April and the test positivity rate is at the lowest point since the pandemic began.
To date about 154 million Americans, more than 46% of the population, have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccines and more than 117 million are fully vaccinated. The rate of new vaccinations has slowed in recent weeks, but with the authorization Wednesday of the Pfizer vaccine for children aged 12-15, a new burst of doses is expected in the coming days.
Just two weeks ago, the CDC recommended that fully vaccinated people continue to wear masks indoors in all settings and outdoors in large crowds.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the CDC, was set to announce the new guidance on Thursday afternoon at a White House briefing.
During a virtual meeting Tuesday on vaccinations with a bipartisan group of governors, President Joe Biden appeared to acknowledge that his administration had to do more to model the benefits of vaccination.
“I would like to say that we have fully vaccinated people; we should start acting like it,” Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican, told Biden. “And that’s a big motivation get the unvaccinated to want to to get vaccinated.”
“Good point,” Biden responded. He added, “we’re going to be moving on that in the next little bit.”
The person spoke on the condition of anonymity to preview the announcement ahead of the official release. The White House did not comment on the matter.
The easing guidance could open the door to confusion, as there is no surefire way for businesses or others to distinguish between those fully vaccinated and those who are not.
Evidence from the U.S. and Israel shows the vaccines are as strongly protective in real-world use as they were in earlier studies, and that so far they continue to work even though some worrying mutated versions of the virus are spreading.
The more people continue to get vaccinated, the faster infections will drop — and the harder it will be for the virus to mutate enough to escape vaccines.
And while some people still get COVID-19 despite vaccination those infections tend to be milder, shorter and harder to spread to others.
AP medical writer Lauran Neergaard contributed.