‘Great day for America’: Vaccinated can largely ditch masks

Zeke Miller and Michael Balsamo
Associated Press

Washington — In a major step toward returning to pre-pandemic life, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eased mask-wearing guidance for fully vaccinated people on Thursday, allowing them to stop wearing masks outdoors in crowds and in most indoor settings.

“Today is a great day for America,” President Joe Biden said during a Rose Garden address heralding the new guidance.

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The guidance still calls for wearing masks in crowded indoor settings like buses, planes, hospitals, prisons and homeless shelters but it will help clear the way for reopening workplaces, schools, and other venues — even removing the need for social distancing for those who are fully vaccinated.

“We have all longed for this moment — when we can get back to some sense of normalcy,” said Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, said at an earlier White House briefing.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky.

The CDC and the Biden administration have faced pressure to ease restrictions on fully vaccinated people — those who are two weeks past their last required COVID-19 vaccine dose — in part to highlight the benefits of getting the shot.

The country’s aggressive vaccination campaign has paid 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.

Walensky said the long-awaited change is thanks to the millions of people who have gotten vaccinated and is based on the latest science about how well those shots are working.

“Anyone who is fully vaccinated can participate in indoor and outdoor activities — large or small — without wearing a mask or physically distancing,” Walensky said. “If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic.”

A spokeswoman for Michigan’s health department didn't have an immediate response about what the state would do. But during the pandemic, the state health department has often followed the CDC’s guidance. 

Changing the current Michigan epidemic order to match the federal recommendations would involve a significant rewriting of policies. Under the current order, the only difference in how fully vaccinated individuals and unvaccinated individuals are treated is those who have had their vaccinations don’t have to wear masks at residential gatherings. 

The CDC is suggesting the fully vaccinated shouldn’t have to wear masks at personal care businesses, such as barbershops, movie theaters and “full capacity worship services.” It’s unclear how business employees or church leaders would decipher who has had their vaccines and who hasn’t. 

Republican lawmakers in the Michigan Legislature have been including preemptive language in upcoming budget proposals to try to ban the use of so-called vaccine passports that would determine who has been vaccinated. 

On April 27, the CDC eased its guidance for mask uses outdoors. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services announced similar changes to the state epidemic order on May 4, seven days later. Masks are usually not required outdoors in Michigan under the new policy.

COVID-19 vaccinations are now allowed for individuals 12 years and older. But younger children would still be subject to existing mask mandates, which have become a political issue in Michigan.

In mid-April, the administration of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued a new epidemic order that expanded a requirement to children as young as 2 years old that residents wear masks during gatherings. The state Department of Health and Human Services made the change amid surging COVID-19 infection and hospitalization rates in Michigan.

The state has since experienced three straight weeks of declining cases and hospitalizations, though Michigan still leads the nation in new cases per population.

Lucretia Ross, 39, LPN, administer a  covid-19 vaccine to Lamont Parks, Sr., 42, of Detroit at Farwell Recreation Center in Detroit.

Michigan on Thursday added 2,057 new coronavirus cases and 112 deaths from COVID-19. The latest figures bring Michigan's total number of cases to 871,569 and deaths to 18,469 since the virus was first detected in March 2020, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.

The Republican-controlled Michigan Senate on Thursday approved a bill that would bar the state health department from issuing emergency orders that require children younger than 5 to wear masks during the COVID-19 pandemic. It passed in a party-line vote of 20-15. It still requires action by the GOP-led House before it would go to Whitmer’s desk.

Previously, Michigan's mask policies had exempted kids younger than 5. Whitmer’s mask mandate for young children was commended by the Michigan Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Whitmer is unlikely to sign the Senate Republicans' proposed ban on mask requirements for young children.

As of Thursday, 55.6% of Michigan's adult population has had at least their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to state data. 

The new CDC guidance on Thursday is likely to open the door to confusion, since there is no surefire way for businesses or others to distinguish between those who are fully vaccinated and those who are not. Walensky said those who are not fully vaccinated should continue to wear masks indoors.

To date about 154 million Americans, more than 46% of the population, have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine 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 shot for children ages 12 to 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.

Port Huron Police Records Bureau employees, left to right, Heather Newberry, Lisa Stein, Taylor Campbell and Jessica Proctor wear PPE masks and are separated by plastic barriers as they input vital police records. The City of Port Huron has spent more than $100,000 on COVID-19 mitigation processes.

Walensky said 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, she stressed, urging everyone 12 and older who’s not yet vaccinated to sign up.

And while some people still get COVID-19 despite being vaccinated, Walensky said, that’s rare. She cited evidence that those infections tend to be milder, shorter and harder to spread to others. If people who are vaccinated do develop COVID-19 symptoms, they should immediately put their mask back on and get tested, she said.

There are some caveats. Walensky encouraged people who have weak immune systems, such as from organ transplants or cancer treatment, to talk with their doctors before shedding their masks. That’s because of continued uncertainty about whether the vaccines can rev up a weakened immune system as well as they do normal, healthy ones.

The new guidance had an immediate effect at the White House, which has taken a cautious approach to easing virus restrictions. Staffers were informed that masks are no longer required for people who are fully vaccinated. And Biden, who was meeting with vaccinated Republican lawmakers in the Oval Office when the guidance was announced, led the group in removing their masks Thursday afternoon.

First lady Jill Biden, who was traveling in West Virginia, told reporters that “we feel naked,” after the guidance, as she and her party removed their face coverings. Then she paused. “I didn’t mean it that way!”

Detroit News Staff Writers Craig Mauger and Karen Bouffard contributed.