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An emergency room physician weighs in on CDC’s relaxed masking, distancing guidelines

Ever since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eased mask recommendations substantially for fully vaccinated adults, there's been a wide range of reaction — including some outright confusion, anxiety and criticism — over how this will play out. William Brangham reports on those concerns and brings some perspective from emergency room physician Dr. Megan Ranney.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Ever since the CDC eased its masking recommendations for fully vaccinated adults, there's been a wide range of reaction, everything from celebration, to confusion, to criticism.

    William Brangham has more about those concerns and some perspective from an emergency medicine doctor.

  • William Brangham:

    Some states and big retail companies like Costco and Walmart will now allow fully vaccinated customers to be inside many public spaces without wearing a mask or keeping a physical distance from others.

    New York's Governor Andrew Cuomo said that would take effect Wednesday in his state. But there are plenty of places where business and local officials are holding back for now. California, for one, announced it won't lift its mask mandates until mid-June to give more time for cases to decline, for more vaccinations, and so people can better prepare.

    It's a lot to navigate.

    And to help us do that, we're joined again by Dr. Megan Ranney. She's an emergency department physician and associate dean of public health at Brown University.

    Dr. Ranney, great to see you back on the "NewsHour."

    So, last week, the CDC says any fully vaccinated adult — that means two weeks after your last shot — can now take your mask off virtually everywhere, except for hospitals and jails and public transportation.

    What did you make of that guidance, and have you seen changes already in your own hospital?

  • Dr. Megan Ranney:

    So the guidance is absolutely scientifically sound.

    If you are fully vaccinated, the chance of your catching COVID, getting severely sick, hospitalized or, God forbid, dying, is tremendously low.

    However, most Americans have not yet been vaccinated. And lots of people who want to get vaccinated still haven't had the chance. The problem here isn't the biological science. It's the behavioral science behind what is going to happen when we tell folks that they can take their masks off.

  • William Brangham:

    So, help me understand what you would have preferred the CDC to say. Would you have preferred a sort of subtler message that are you vaccinated, you are largely safe, but maybe we should be wearing masks in places where people are mixed, vaccinated and unvaccinated?

  • Megan Ranney:

    That is exactly right, just like they were clear that you do still need to wear masks in health care settings.

    And, yes, I have not seen anything in my own E.R. yet. Similarly, it would be fine to say, listen, vaccines protect you. They protect you tremendously well. But for the sake of our community, we're all going to keep indoor masking just a little bit longer to help keep each other safe until everyone who wants a vaccine has had the chance to be fully vaccinated.

    It would also have been great to see some metrics to provide policy guidance to states and to businesses. I think California's decision is absolutely right. Give it a little more time, so that all those folks who just became eligible in mid-April actually have the chance to get vaccines in arms and for the vaccines to take effect.

    This is just an ex extension of what we have done for the last 15 months with protecting our community. A few more weeks of masking is not going to hurt us.

  • William Brangham:

    We just came out with a "NewsHour" NPR/Marist poll that.

    And it showed that roughly, I think it's three-quarters of people have either been vaccinated or said they're hoping to do so very soon. But then a quarter of people said they are not going to be vaccinated. And it seems that, if those people are now out in society without wearing masks, that kids and people with compromised immune systems might really be at risk, because we can't tell who has been vaccinated and who hasn't.

  • Dr. Megan Ranney:

    That is exactly right.

    At some point, we can't protect everyone forever. And people who choose not to get vaccinated after vaccines are fully available, at some point, they are taking on a risk for themselves. But it is the rest of the community who I am worried about. It is those folks on chemo or immunosuppressants or kids, right?; 12-to-15 year olds just became eligible for vaccines.

    And it is going to be tough to keep masks on kids when no one else is wearing them. So, that is exactly the concern is, what does this mean for our larger community? Now, things will continue to change. Cases will continue to drop. Hopefully, vaccines in arms will continue to week.

    In a few weeks from now, or, like California has said, in mid-June, that is an appropriate time to start to relax guidance. So, I think the CDC was right to talk about the science. I wish that big businesses and states weren't rushing to change policy based off of the fact that vaccines work.

  • William Brangham:

    Dr. Megan Ranney, thank you for helping us wade through all of this. Good to see you.

  • Dr. Megan Ranney:

    Same. Thank you.

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