An ongoing dialogue on HIV/AIDS, infectious diseases,
May 17th, 2021
CDC’s Surprise Mask Policy — and What It Means Right Now for Me
Anyone else out there blindsided by the CDC’s announcement last week about masks?
Fully vaccinated people can resume activities without wearing a mask or physically distancing …
Jeepers, that was fast. Less than a month ago, I was having a conversation with my dog Louie about outdoor mask mandates, wondering when our town would drop this unnecessary (in my opinion) rule about how we live out in the fresh air — where we know SARS-CoV-2 transmission is exceedingly rare.
But now, all at once, no masks needed at all for vaccinated people? Not quite — there’s plenty of fine print:
… except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance.
That means we’ll still see masks in hospitals and doctors’ offices. Planes, trains, buses, airports. And this incredibly important caveat for our immunocompromised patients is a reminder that they can’t rely on the vaccines to protect them:
— Paul Sax (@PaulSaxMD) May 13, 2021
I’d add that many will continue to wear masks in settings like the crowded Trader Joe’s in my neighborhood, regardless of the policies they (or other companies) institute. Let me ask you — in places with sufficient density of people in public indoor settings, with the vaccinated status of many still not known, and case numbers still at tens of thousands a day nationally, why not wear a mask?
That’s what people like me will do. (Not that you need reminding, but I’m an ID doctor, living in a very mask-friendly state.)
In this piece, Zeynep Tufekci argued for CDC’s holding out a bit longer before making this policy statement — along with setting benchmarks for case numbers before removing indoor mask-wearing in public for vaccinated people. Several others have commented that they thought the announcement was premature.
I get that. But since half the country thinks this action by CDC is too soon, and the other half too late, the CDC’s probably getting it about right, timing-wise. Remember, local jurisdictions can make their own rules, people who have been vaccinated can make their own decisions, and there is a deep hope that this action will encourage those who have not yet been vaccinated to do so — it’s a tangible benefit.
So what happens next nationally? Strongly suspect we’ll see a continued downward count of case numbers, even with less mask-wearing. This is the combined power of the vaccines, which have proven to be remarkably effective in real-world settings, the shift toward outdoor activities, and exponential decay — fewer people out there with COVID-19 means fewer opportunities for new infections, an amazingly strong force we saw in play last summer even before we had vaccines.
Look, even with far more testing, we’re already back to where we were last June, and it’s only mid-May:
The last time the US had <17,500 confirmed cases in a day was June 8, ~11 months ago, when the testing was 1/3rd as much as now.
The descent (exponential decay) continues pic.twitter.com/ehb2LHP6qb
— Eric Topol (@EricTopol) May 17, 2021
Believe me, I know that COVID-19 is not yet over — new cases still are occurring, and still will occur. Some will be serious, especially in the unvaccinated or the immunosuppressed. Some others will be in vaccinated people, mostly linked to indoor transmissions, as they always have been.
Remember, with this virus — humility. Stay flexible. Respond to new data. Keep on vaccinating.
And cheer these great numbers!