Dr. Anthony Fauci on Sunday said he was open to relaxing indoor masking rules as more Americans get vaccinated against the virus, just two days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention belatedly emphasized the danger of airborne transmission.
Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser for the pandemic, said that as vaccinations climb, “we do need to start being more liberal” in terms of rules for wearing masks indoors, although he noted that the nation was still averaging about 43,000 cases of the virus daily. “We’ve got to get it much, much lower than that,” he said.
On Friday, the CDC updated its guidance about how the coronavirus spreads, stating explicitly that people can inhale airborne virus even when they are more than 6 feet away from an infected individual. Previously, the agency had said that most infections were acquired through “close contact, not airborne transmission.”
The update brought the agency in line with evidence of the danger from airborne droplets that public health researchers had noted as the pandemic unfolded last year, and, according to some experts, also underscored the urgency for the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue standards for employers to address potential airborne hazards in the workplace.
Fauci’s comments Sunday came in response to a question about comments that Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former head of the Food and Drug Administration, made last week on CNBC. He said that relaxing indoor mask mandates now — “especially in environments where you know you have a high level of vaccination”— would give public health officials “the credibility to implement them” again in the fall or winter if cases surge again.
Fauci, asked by George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s Sunday program “This Week” whether he agreed, said: “I think so, and I think you’re going to probably be seeing that as we go along, and as more people get vaccinated.”
“The CDC will be, almost in real time, George, updating their recommendations and their guidelines,” Fauci added. “But yes, we do need to start being more liberal as we get more people vaccinated.”
Over a third of the U.S. population — more than 112 million people — is fully vaccinated and another 40 million people have received the first dose of a two-dose protocol.
The CDC, which issues national guidance on masking, says that even vaccinated people should continue to wear masks in indoor public spaces, including restaurants when they are not actively eating and drinking. In many places across the country, it is clear that the guidance is not being followed.
In an interview Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Jeffrey Zients, Biden’s COVID-response coordinator, was somewhat more circumspect than Fauci when asked about Gottlieb’s comments.
“I think everyone is tired, and wearing a mask is — it can be a pain.” Zients said. “But we’re getting there. And the light at the end of the tunnel is brighter and brighter. Let’s keep up our guard. Let’s follow the CDC guidance. And the CDC guidance across time will allow vaccinated people more and more privileges to take off that mask.”
Zients also suggested that instead of reaching herd immunity — the point when enough people are immune to the virus that it can no longer spread through the population — the goal should be to achieve some sense of normalcy by getting 70% of Americans immunized. Biden has called for 70% to have at least one dose by July 4.
Reaching 70% will create “a pattern of decreasing cases, hospitalizations and deaths and take us down to a sustainable low level,” Zients said, pointing to Israel, a world leader in vaccinations, as a model.
In that country, vaccinations have reached almost 60% of the population since they began Dec. 19, and the seven-day average of new cases has dropped from a high of more than 8,600 on Jan. 17 to fewer than 60 as of Saturday.