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5 Things to Know about CDC's New Mask Guidance

A customer exits a corner market while wearing a protective mask in the retail shopping district of the SoHo neighborhood of the Manhattan borough of New York, May 14, 2021.

"We have all longed for this moment," U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky told reporters Thursday as she announced new guidelines that significantly relax restrictions for fully vaccinated people in the United States.

The CDC says that two weeks after their last dose of vaccine, people no longer need to wear masks indoors and outdoors, at gatherings large and small. No need to keep 6 feet of social distance, either.

"If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic," Walensky said.

But there are limits. Here are some things to know.

First, "fully vaccinated" means two weeks have passed since your second shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine, or since your one-dose Johnson & Johnson shot.

I'm fully vaccinated. What does the CDC say I can do now?

Congratulations, your immune system is primed and ready to defend you should you come into contact with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

So if you have been waiting to visit friends and relatives who are not vaccinated or might not be vaccinated, go ahead, the CDC says. No need to mask up. You are protected.

You are also protected if you sit without a mask in a packed theater or church. You can feel secure baring your face while getting a haircut. You do not need to worry about getting sick if you sit inside in an air-conditioned bar with your mouth and nose uncovered.

FILE - A "face masks required" sign is displayed at a shopping center in Schaumburg, Ill., Nov. 13, 2020.
FILE - A "face masks required" sign is displayed at a shopping center in Schaumburg, Ill., Nov. 13, 2020.

So can I ignore the "Masks Required" sign at the store?

No. And this is where it can get complicated.

You are protected. But most Americans are not. While millions are getting their shots every day, just over a third of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated so far.

That means most of the country is still vulnerable to infection. With 35,000 people getting infected every day, there is still a lot of virus circulating out there.

Nearly all infections happen indoors. Most places do not check vaccination status at the door. If they did, the burden would fall on workers, who have few options to enforce it.

So where state or local regulations mandate it, or businesses and workplaces require it, everyone needs to wear a mask.

Can I travel without a mask?

Not yet. The CDC has not changed its guidance for travel, and federal regulations still require masks on buses, trains and planes as well as in bus stations, train stations and airports.

FILE - Students wear masks as they work in a fourth-grade classroom at Elk Ridge Elementary School in Buckley, Wash., Feb. 2, 2021.
FILE - Students wear masks as they work in a fourth-grade classroom at Elk Ridge Elementary School in Buckley, Wash., Feb. 2, 2021.

What about schools and summer camps?

No change yet. Most children are not yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccination, though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Monday.

Walensky said the CDC would be reviewing its guidance for travel, schools and camps soon, now that its recommendations for vaccinated people have changed.

Experts expect that in a few weeks, rules will ease further in most places as infection rates continue to fall and the number of vaccinated people continues to rise.

Why did the CDC make the change now?

Walensky noted that conditions on the ground have improved. Infections are down by a third over the past two weeks, and nearly three-fifths of the U.S. adult population has received at least one shot of vaccine.

While evidence has been coming in for some time showing how effective the vaccines are, Walensky said new research published in the past few weeks persuaded the CDC to loosen the guidelines.

The vaccines have prevented 94% of cases or better in studies of health care workers in Israel and the United States.

They work against some of the most worrying variants, too. In Qatar, where variants first identified in Britain and South Africa are dominant, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was 100% effective in preventing severe forms of the disease.

In the rare cases in which vaccinated people did get infected, their infections were usually mild or without symptoms, and they rarely passed the virus to other people.

The CDC has been under pressure for weeks to loosen its guidelines. Some said the previous restrictions on vaccinated people were so tight that they did not offer much incentive for people to get their shots.

But the announcement sharply divided public health experts. Some said that loosening the guidance for vaccinated people would encourage more unvaccinated people to get their shots. Others said it would embolden unvaccinated anti-maskers to go without, creating problems for places that maintain mask mandates.

Masks became a badge of political affiliation under the Trump administration, and the decision is stirring up partisan animosities. Republicans have been most resistant to masks and COVID-19 vaccination. Several members of the U.S. House of Representatives have refused to be vaccinated, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, said she would not lift a mask mandate in the chamber until everyone was vaccinated.

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    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.