CDC's Shift Clashes With Epidemiologists' Expectations

Most thought masks would be needed indoors for another year or so
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted May 14, 2021 9:04 AM CDT
CDC's 'About-Face' Surprises Epidemiologists
Pedestrians walk along Boston's Newbury Street earlier this month.   (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Mike Allen of Axios calls it "liberation day." Russell Berman of the Atlantic writes about the CDC "liberating the people from their face coverings." The references, of course, are to the CDC's decision on Thursday to declare that the fully vaccinated can skip wearing masks in most places, indoors and out. A look at how the news is being received:

  • Surprise: The New York Times reports that the decision surprised many in the public health arena. In particular, it notes that 80% of epidemiologists it surveyed over the last two weeks had predicted masks would be necessary in public indoor places for another year. Only 5% thought the indoor mandate would be lifted by the summer, and nearly 90% thought even the fully vaccinated would need masks in crowded outdoor places, such as concerts.

  • Caveats: The CDC guidance is only a recommendation, notes the Los Angeles Times, with state and local governments having the final say. The CDC also wants everyone to continue to wear masks when traveling on public transportation, or in airports, homeless shelters, hospitals, jails, etc., per MedPage Today. The new CDC guidance is here.
  • One take: "The end of the pandemic may not be near, exactly, but it’s no longer rash, impolitic, or scientifically dubious to broach the topic," writes Joel Achenbach in the Washington Post. He notes the number of new infections is at its lowest since mid-September and is on track to be the lowest in nearly 11 months within a week.
  • 'Slippery slope': In the New York Times, David Leonhardt writes that the CDC "about-face" means that the agency's guidance has finally caught up to the evidence. "Fully vaccinated people are at virtually no risk of serious disease and only a minuscule risk of spreading the virus to others," he writes. Some worry about a "slippery slope" that might result—that the unvaccinated might ditch their masks, too. But "history suggests (this concern) is often overblown," writes Leonhardt.
  • Questions: In his Atlantic piece, Berman ticks off the questions the move raised: "Is it safe to bring kids into a grocery store where people aren’t wearing masks? What about the immunocompromised for whom the vaccines might be less effective? How do you know whether a maskless person is vaccinated?" Americans will have to wrestle with such things for a while. It's possible the CDC action will come to be seen as premature, he writes. But "when the pandemic is finally indeed over, the country might look back at the unexpected announcement of May 13 as a moment of demarcation—even as something of an end."
  • Trust issue: CNN also takes a look at lingering questions. For example, how will store or restaurant owners know if patrons are vaccinated? "They will not be able to know," Anthony Fauci tells the network. "I mean, you're going to be depending on people being honest enough to say whether they were vaccinated or not, and responsible enough to be wearing ... a mask, not only for their own protection, but also for the protection of others."
(More COVID-19 stories.)

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