Americans have been told they no longer need to wear face masks or practise social distancing if they are fully vaccinated, unless they are on public transport – a major milestone in the country’s pandemic response.
Dr Rochelle Walensky, Director of America’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, announced the updated guidance during a media briefing today.
“Today, CDC is updating our guidance for fully vaccinated people,” said Dr Walensky.
“Anyone who is fully vaccinated can participate in indoor and outdoor activities, large and small, without wearing a mask or physical distancing.
“If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic.
“We have all longed for this moment, when we can get back to some sense of normalcy.
“Based on the continuing downward trajectory on cases, the scientific data on the performance of our vaccines, and our understanding of how the virus spreads, that moment has come for those who are fully vaccinated.”
A fully vaccinated person is someone who received their final dose of the vaccine at least 14 days ago.
Dr Walensky said a key factor in the CDC’s decision was recent scientific data showing fully vaccinated people, even if they test positive for COVID-19, are extremely unlikely to transmit the virus to others.
There are exceptions to the no-mask guidelines. All travellers, even those who are fully vaccinated, are still required to wear face coverings on planes, buses and trains, and at airports and train stations.
During her briefing, Dr Walensky warned unvaccinated Americans they were still in danger.
“You remain at risk of mild or severe illness, of death, or of spreading the disease to others,” she said.
“You should still mask, and you should get vaccinated right away.”
And because the CDC issues guidance, rather than rules, people still have to comply with any state or local laws requiring them to mask up.
Some businesses and workplaces will undoubtedly continue to require masks for their patrons and employees.
However, one very high profile workplace – the White House – has already rescinded its mask rule for fully vaccinated individuals.
President Joe Biden was meeting with a group of Republican senators when the updated CDC guidance came through. Everyone in the room immediately removed their masks.
“The President took his off too,” Republican Senator Shelly Moore Capito told reporters a short time later.
“I think we’ll see more people willing to get vaccinated because the reward from that will be that they won’t have to wear masks.”
Americans online responded to the new guidelines in a lighthearted fashion.
Mr Biden addressed the country at about 4pm, local time, hailing the new mask guidelines as a “great milestone”.
“Today is a great day for America,” the President said.
“They are no longer recommending that fully vaccinated people need to wear masks. This recommendation holds true whether you are inside or outside.
“I think this is a great milestone, a great day. It’s been made possible by the extraordinary success we’ve had in vaccinating so many Americans so quickly.
“Cases are down in 49 of 50 states. Hospitalisations are the lowest they’ve been since April of 2020, over a year ago. Deaths are down 80 per cent, and are also at their lowest level since April 2020.
“As the virus tragically rages in other countries, as other countries are mired in challenges, things are very different here.
“In less than four months, we’ve gone from 5.5 per cent to almost 60 per cent of Americans who’ve had at least one shot in their arms.”
Mr Biden said some people thought 2021 would be another “lost year for our country”.
“We’ve proved the doubters wrong,” he said.
“For more than a year, you have endured so much. So many lost jobs, so many businesses lost, so many lives up-ended, so many months you couldn’t see your friends and family.
“Most tragically of all, we lost lives. As of close of business yesterday, 580,073 lost lives. So many times a husband or wife leaned over to touch their spouse and they’re not there. Mums and dads, sons and daughters. Sisters, brothers, neighbours, co-workers.
“We’ve endured all this. When your country asked you to get vaccinated, you did. You did what I consider to be your patriotic duty. That’s how we got to this day.
“As President, I could say I’m pleased. But I’m not surprised. The American people have never, ever, ever let their country down.
“There’s nothing we are unable when we put our minds, our hearts and our souls into it, and we do it together.”
The President said he wanted to be clear about what the CDC was saying and “not saying”, warning unvaccinated people they should still wear masks.
“Fully vaccinated people are at a very, very low risk of getting COVID-19. Therefore, if you’ve been fully vaccinated, you no longer need to wear a mask,” he explained.
“But if you’ve not been vaccinated, or if you’re getting a two-shot vaccine and you’ve only had your first shot, you still need to wear a mask.
“We’ve got this far. Please protect yourself until you get to the finish line. As great as this announcement is today, we don’t want to let up.
“After a year of hard work and so much sacrifice, the message is very simple: get vaccinated, or wear a mask until you do.
“The choice is yours. You all made this possible. Now let’s finish the work of beating this virus and getting everything back to normal.”