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The CDC says we can start ditching face masks now, but some people are clearly confused

CDC mask guidance

In the hours after the milestone announcement from the CDC on Thursday — finally updating its long-standing mask guidance to note that fully vaccinated people can now start getting back to their normal lives — the news that people have been waiting for more than a year to hear was greeted with everything from appreciation to confusion. And plenty of people misunderstood the new guidance about face masks and social distancing altogether.

Here’s what the CDC did not say in its updated face mask guidance: If you’re vaccinated, you can go back to your old life, with no exceptions. Yet some of the news coverage, and even some of the social media commentary from “experts” might have led people to think that. Even White House COVID response team senior adviser Andy Slavitt made a big error when he tweeted the following on Thursday afternoon, following the CDC’s news: “If you missed it, today the CDC revised their guidance for vaccinated Americans. Masks and social distancing are no longer needed indoors and outside if you are vaccinated.”

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If you want to get a run-down on what all was announced today, however, head over to the portion of the CDC’s website that does a deep dive on what you can do “When You’ve Been Fully Vaccinated.

Here’s where Slavitt’s tweet above is at least partially correct. From the CDC: “If you are fully vaccinated, you can resume activities that you did prior to the pandemic.” Pretty self-explanatory, right? But you’ve got to keep reading.

The CDC’s new guidance continues: “Fully vaccinated people can resume activities without wearing a mask or physically distancing, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance.”

That is a pretty big exception! One place where that exception is in force in a major way that will affect millions of ordinary people is anywhere governed by federal transportation laws, such as airplanes. So, let’s pause and review where we are — if you’re fully vaccinated, and it’s been at least 2 weeks since you got your final shot — “you can resume activities” that you did before the pandemic. EXCEPT, as we’ve just seen, where regulations say otherwise.

Oh, and take a closer look at the end of that sentence above that mentions exceptions, because there’s another huge caveat — if businesses and your workplace say you’ve still got to wear a mask, you’ve got to wear one, notwithstanding the CDC’s “go back to normal” statement. And the business/workplace exception, alone, almost completely cancels out the loosening of restrictions that the CDC’s announcement purports to offer.

Some additional questions to consider:

  • Won’t this new CDC guidance mean some un-vaccinated people will just say to heck with it and ditch their face mask and continue to hold on to their vaccine hesitancy? Almost certainly — after all, if they’re not concerned enough about their own health to get vaccinated, why would they want to stick out in public and continue to be among the only ones wearing face masks? The CDC seems to be saying, though, that you shouldn’t be concerned about these people doing that, so long as you’re vaccinated — because you’ll be fine.

Will this help improve the US’ overall vaccine numbers? Possibly. The thinking is that up to this point, at least some people were hesitant to get the vaccine, because they saw that life wouldn’t apparently go back to normal for them anytime soon. Masks and social distancing would still be required. Today’s news fixes that.

A few other important points the CDC emphasized today, taken from the CDC’s guidance on its website:

What is known now about the coronavirus

  • COVID-19 vaccines are effective at preventing COVID-19 disease, especially severe illness and death, according to the CDC.
  • The vaccines from drugmakers like Pfizer and Moderna also reduce the risk of people spreading COVID-19.

What We’re Still Learning

  • How effective the vaccines are against variants of the virus that causes COVID-19. Early data show the vaccines may work against some variants but could be less effective against others.
  • How well the vaccines protect people with weakened immune systems.
  • And the million-dollar question, how long COVID-19 vaccines can protect people before they’ll need the next presumably yearly booster shot.
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Andy Meek is a reporter who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming. Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.