The Centers for Disease Control took what some may say is a major step in the pandemic Thursday, changing their guidance about indoor mask-wearing for vaccinated people. It's a move that seems geared to encouraging more people to go get their vaccinations, but is anyone really listening to the CDC where this would matter, and will this really move any of the truly vaccine-hesitant to go get their shots?
The CDC may just be catching up to what the prevailing trend is — and even in San Francisco, you won't see a lot of masks on in indoor restaurants because most people are eating or drinking and feeling vaccinated and care-free. But there are plenty of parts of the country where vaccination rates are far lower, and where indoor spaces like bars and bowling alleys have been open without restriction for months.
And there are other places, including California, that are keeping mask mandates in place at least another month. In Minnesota, for instance, where only 34% of the population is fully vaccinated, most capacity restrictions on businesses are getting lifted in two weeks. But Governor Tim Walz has said that the mask mandate won't be lifted until 70% of the population aged 16 and up has been vaccinated.
In those places where there are a lot of vaccine-hesitant people, today's announcement may fall on deaf ears — because many of those people have long since gone back to normal life, regardless of whether they've gotten their shots. But, the CDC is telling anyone who'll listen that vaccinated people can — so long as their local county allows — toss off the masks at the grocery store and all indoor and outdoor spaces, with only a few exceptions.
Those exceptions are: hospitals and doctor's offices, long-term care facilities; crowded modes of transit like buses, planes, or trains; prisons; homeless shelters; and busy public places like airports and bus stations.
Dr. Anthony Fauci got out in front of the announcement today, saying in an interview with the New York Times, "We’ve got to liberalize the restrictions so people can feel like they’re getting back to some normalcy. Pulling back restrictions on indoor masks is an important step in the right direction."
He added, "You can’t inhibit people from doing the things they want to do, which is one of the reasons they wanted to get vaccinated in the first place, because other people are not getting vaccinated." And, he said, "For those who are more risk averse, you have a choice of continuing to wear it if you want to."
There's virtually no doubt that San Francisco will not jump to ease all mask restrictions just yet — and even when the CDC, based on broadly accepted science, recommended that masks on sidewalks and outdoor spaces weren't necessary anymore, SF took an extra week before going along with that. And perhaps that's a good thing, given that everyone is so used to the masks now — and, as we've said, cases are not down to zero. There is also no way to know who's been vaccinated and who hasn't, and with summer approaching, SF may once again be filled with tourists from other places where vaccine selfies are not de rigeur.
As the Times reports, the CDC has been under pressure to lift restrictions more quickly, especially for vaccinated Americans — with some suggesting that the cautious approach thus far suggests lack of confidence in the vaccines themselves. But so-called real-world studies of the vaccines have found little to fear about breakthrough infections, or about variants being vaccine-resistant — with thousands of study participants having been vaccinated back in December. Also, the thousands of people who were vaccinated during clinical trials last year have not been showing up infected with new strains either.
California Governor Gavin Newsom gave a widely quoted interview this week in which he said that the state would broadly lift its mask mandate starting June 15 — including for bars, restaurants, gyms, and other indoor spaces. He said that masks would only be required in "massively large settings where people from around the world, not just around the country, are convening and where people are mixing in real dense spaces."
As of today, children ages 12 to 15 can get vaccinated in San Francisco and elsewhere in the Bay Area — and Mayor London Breed noted on Twitter that that represents about 25,000 more San Franciscans who are newly eligible. While children have not been sickened in large numbers by COVID-19, they can carry and spread the virus to vulnerable family members and teachers.
Unfortunately, adding to the potential pointlessness of the CDC's announcement about masks is the fact that the CDC is no longer the broadly trusted government organization it once was. Thanks to Trump — who succeeded in doing a lot of damage to a lot of trust in a lot of things, despite accomplishing very little otherwise as president — and perhaps thanks to the CDC's early failures with regard to containing the coronavirus or telling us to wear masks in the first place, only about half of Americans say they put a "great deal" of trust in the CDC. That's according to a report out this month from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
"Despite a broad awareness and recognition for the important role public health agencies play in protecting and promoting the health of the general public and vulnerable groups, this survey... shows the American public has higher trust in healthcare professionals than public health institutions and agencies, people give mixed ratings on the job performance of public health agencies, and a substantial minority of the public does not trust health information shared by their state and local public health departments," the report says.
Update: San Francisco's Department of Public Health says it will wait on the state to update its masking recommendation before making any change locally.
As we recently did with the new guidance on outdoor masking for fully vaccinated people, we must wait for the state to adopt the updated guidelines before making changes to the local health order that we consider safe. (2/4)— SFDPH (@SF_DPH) May 13, 2021
"We know people are eager to shed their masks and the quickest way we can arrive at a place where it is safe to do so, is for every eligible person to get vaccinated as soon as possible," the department said on Twitter.
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