Fallout, Confusion Continue in Wake of CDC Mask Announcement

Damian McNamara

May 17, 2021

To some a walk-back, to others a clarification, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, said people need to be "honest with themselves" when it comes to wearing a mask after the agency's new guidance announced last week.

Walensky made a number of appearances on Sunday morning talk shows to defend the agency's new policy. On CNN's State of the Union show, for example, she said the honor system plays a role, so people who are protected through vaccination no longer have to wear a mask in most settings.

"How's the honor system going?" Leanne M. Redman, PhD, a women's health researcher in Baton Rouge, LA, asked on Twitter on Monday. "Seems like it's no masks in Louisiana."


Walensky also appeared on Fox News Sunday explaining that the new guidance is based on science that emerged in the previous 2 weeks: studies that support the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines.

The easing of mask requirements only applies to people fully vaccinated. "For the unvaccinated, our policy has not changed," she said on ABC's This Week.

The new CDC guidance came as a surprise to many. It also continues to generate multiple questions -- particularly on social media -- about how the recommendations should play out in different settings and scenarios.

Emergency room doctor Megan Ranney, MD, tweeted that the announcement came sooner than expected. She had predicted mask-wearing would not be relaxed until summer. "A couple weeks ago, I suggested on @CNNOpinion that CDC guidelines about masks would shift in early summer, as more Americans get vaccinated. (Because - vaccines work marvelously well, full stop.) Today's announcement is frankly sooner than I expected."


A strong opinion against the CDC's action came from Lawrence Gostin of the World Health Organization Center on Global Health Law. On Saturday, he tweeted that the move was "one of the CDC's most serious errors" in recent memory.


Other health care professionals and experts were quick to weigh in both for and against the new guidance.

To wear or not wear a mask remains a question, even among the fully vaccinated. ET Mitra, a gastrointestinal nurse in New York City, shared this concern on Twitter: "I saw too many COVID-19 horror stories and I still prefer to mask up around strangers. If I choose to wear my mask indoors are people going to think I'm anti-vax?"


President Joe Biden supported the CDC's move on Twitter but acknowledged an issue with the timing. "If you're fully vaccinated, you can now go mask-less in most settings," he wrote. "But remember: it's going to take time for everyone who wants to get vaccinated to get their shots, and some vaccinated people prefer masks. So please, if you see someone with a mask, treat them with kindness."


The Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) responded Monday. The society supports the agency's actions but added, "The CDC recommendations should not send the message that the pandemic is over. Less than half of the U.S. population is fully immunized," society President Barbara D. Alexander, MD, and Rajesh T. Gandhi, MD, chairperson of the HIV Medicine Association, wrote in a joint statement.

Even the IDSA is seeking more answers. "Additional guidance is needed to clarify safe interactions in public spaces and workplaces when vaccination status is unknown," the statement says

National retailers also reacted to the CDC's announcement over the weekend. Walmart, for example, issued a letter to all employees stating they now have two reasons to get vaccinated against COVID-19. One is not having to wear masks in the workplace, and another is a $75 incentive to get immunized. The no-mask part of the policy applies to fully vaccinated customers as well. Trader Joe's, Starbucks, and Target announced similar policies loosening mask requirements for customers.

Saturday Night Live skewered the confusion over the CDC's new guidance, with cast member Kate McKinnon portraying Anthony Fauci, MD. People have questions, "Fauci" said, such as, "What does that mean?" What the h*ll are you talking about? Is this a trap?"

There are exceptions to the new guidance. Masks continue to be recommended in schools for now, as most school-age children are not yet vaccinated against COVID-19, Walensky said. People also should continue to wear masks on planes, buses, trains, and other forms of public transportation.


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