The new federal guidance on masks is welcome news for a pandemic-weary nation. But it comes as COVID-19 infections rise in Washington.
Last week, Gov. Jay Inslee held a news conference announcing that the state had entered the fourth wave of COVID-19 infections. With cases climbing and hospitalizations rising, what should be made of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s updated guidelines for face coverings? They say that people who are fully vaccinated don’t have to wear a mask outside unless they are in a large gathering or someplace crowded.
We address that question on CDC guidelines and answer another one on who can go maskless and where in this week’s FAQ Friday.
What are the new CDC guidelines for face coverings?
The eye-catching headline on Tuesday when the guidance was updated said people who are fully vaccinated could venture outside without a mask. “Fully vaccinated” means a person is two weeks removed from a second dose of the two-shot Moderna and Pfizer vaccines or the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
The previous guidance called on people to wear masks when outside, even when jogging or riding bikes, especially if those activities were done with others or in crowded areas.
The CDC now says that those who are unvaccinated can drop the mask while attending small outdoor gatherings with fully vaccinated friends and family. They can also take walks, bike and run without a face covering as long as they are with members of their household.
The fully vaccinated also have the OK to eat outdoors at a restaurant with people from multiple households but still need to wear masks at crowded events like sporting events or outdoor concerts. They are urged to wear masks indoors.
The action was taken because of rising vaccination numbers and research that demonstrates that less than 10% of confirmed cases of COVID-19 resulted from outdoor transmission of the coronavirus, said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky.
About 40% of state residents have received at least one shot. Nationally about half of Americans have had at least one dose.
“Today, I hope, is a day when we can take another step back to the normalcy of before,” said Walensky. “Over the past year, we have spent a lot of time telling Americans what you can’t do. Today, I am going to tell you some of the things you can do, if you are fully vaccinated.”
How does the CDC mask guidance square with the increasing number of COVID-19 cases in Washington?
Despite the increase of COVID-19 cases, the state Department of Health supports the CDC’s decision and is following the updated guidelines.
“We believe this is welcome news,” said Umair Shah, the state’s secretary of health, during a news conference Wednesday. “As the pandemic evolves we too need to evolve. That means as the science evolves we too need to evolve.”
The more transmissible variant first identified in the United Kingdom now makes up between 60% and 70% of cases in Washington, Shah said.
The CDC’s stance on masks is a reflection of an improved understanding of how the disease spreads, its low transmission rate outdoors and how effective the vaccines are at protecting against the virus, said Dr. Jeffrey Duchin, Public Health — Seattle & King County’s health officer.
“Most outdoor activities are unlikely to significantly contribute to COVID-19 spread in the community,” he wrote in an email. “In addition, vaccination is highly protective in both indoor and outdoor environments.”
Duchin does urge people who are immunocompromised to discuss what precautions they should be taking in light of the new CDC recommendations.
Shah was a bit more cautious than the CDC, saying people not vaccinated or fully vaccinated should continue wearing masks outside and for everyone to wear masks in indoor public settings.
“Unvaccinated people should continue to wear masks outside. The studies are suggesting that outdoor transmission is rare but it still can happen,” Shah said. “We know the risk is higher when you are indoors. We know the risk is higher when you are in crowds or gatherings, and we really want to recommend and help people recognize the importance of vaccines and to take things outside.”