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CDC director on mask guidance for the fully vaccinated, unvaccinated and immunocompromised

Fully vaccinated Americans will now be able to go mask-free indoors in most places, and outdoors in crowds, according to new guidance released Thursday from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky signed off on the new guidance and now joins Judy Woodruff to discuss it.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Fully vaccinated Americans will now be able to go mask-free indoors in most places and outdoors in crowds.

    That's comes from new guidance today from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is a big change, as the country tries to move to a more routine rhythm. But the CDC still advises wearing masks in some crowded indoor settings, like public transit, hospitals, and prisons.

    President Biden marked the milestone. He asked Americans to be tolerant of different attitudes as public behavior changes.

  • Pres. Joe Biden:

    Be patient with one another. You know, some may say, I just feel more comfortable continuing to wear a mask. They may feel that way.

    So, if you're someone with a mask, you see them, please treat them with kindness and respect. If you're fully vaccinated and can take your mask off, you have earned the right to do something that Americans are known for all around the world, greeting others with a smile.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky green-lit the new guidance today, and she joins me now.

    Dr. Walensky, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    So, this is a big change. What is the new information that led to this? And how do you know it's right?

  • Dr. Rochelle Walensky:

    Good evening, Judy. Thanks for having me.

    You know, there are several things that were all happening at exactly the same time, which I think really motivated us to move forward.

    The first is, over the last two weeks, our case rates in the country have come down by about a third, likely very much due to the scale-up of vaccinations that we have been able to do. Second is that we have new science now that basically shows that the vaccine is working.

    Its effectiveness in real-world settings outside of the trial, outside of our trials, has demonstrated that it works just as well as it did in the trials, that these vaccines are working against variants and that, if you are vaccinated, you're very unlikely to be able to get asymptomatic disease, and, therefore, transmit to other people.

    So, the science sort of all coalesced at the same time. And then, finally, we're at a place in this country right now where everyone is eligible to get a vaccinate if you're over the age of 12. And it's available. We, fortunately, have supply right now that it's available to everyone who is eligible.

    You can text 438829 and put in your zip code. And when you do that, you will see five vaccination sites near you that you can get a vaccine.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, just to be clear, people who have been fully vaccinated can now go, what, to the grocery store, to restaurants, bars, to a friend's birthday party without wearing a mask?

  • Rochelle Walensky:

    We believe that, based on the science and the data that we have access to, that fully vaccinated people will be safe in doing those activities.

    Now, what I want to say is we still are deferring to the local jurisdictions to make local policy. So, for example, we do suggest that local jurisdictions look at their own vaccination rates, look at their own case rate in their area, because the country is not uniform with regard to both cases and vaccine scale-up, and to make some of those policies locally.

    But the data have now demonstrated to us that it's safe for vaccinated people to take off their masks.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, people do need to pay attention to their local guidance, as well as what they're hearing from the CDC.

    And what about in terms of where still people should be careful, public transportation, and you're saying big crowds indoors, and — but everywhere outdoors is OK?

  • Rochelle Walensky:

    Yes, we're really — you know, this was — the move today was really to talk about individuals and what individuals are safe doing.

    The hard work that we have ahead of us at CDC is to now take our guidance in each individual setting and apply the guidance that we released today to each of these individual settings. What does this mean for transport and for our travel corridors? What does this mean for schools? What does this mean for childcare centers? What does this mean for many other settings?

    And so that's had the hard work that we have ahead of us.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Walensky, I'm sure you know people are be concerned.

    They're going to say, OK, I may be able to go out without a mask. I have been fully vaccinated. But there may be others without a mask who have not been vaccinated. And what is my risk from them, in this new world, this new set of guidelines?

  • Rochelle Walensky:

    So, if you are fully vaccinated, the risk is extraordinarily low.

    And that was why, based on the studies that we have — we — that have been published and that we have seen, the risk to the vaccinated person is extraordinarily low.

    I want to emphasize that if unvaccinated people choose to take off their mask, and they have not been vaccinated, then the risk to them is still the same as it was before.

    So, we really want to empower people to take these — this responsibility into their own hands. If you are unvaccinated, please get vaccinated to decrease that risk. And if you don't choose to be vaccinated, then please continue to wear a mask and practice all of the mitigation strategies have said up until now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But this truly is an honor system, is it not? We heard President Biden say today there aren't going to be enforcement mechanisms. They're not going to go around arresting people who haven't been vaccinated who are not wearing a mask.

  • Rochelle Walensky:

    I — more than calling it an honor system, I might say people are responsible for their own health.

    If you are vaccinated — if you are vaccinated, then you take that responsibility, and you decide whether you want to wear a mask — it's a very personal decision — or whether you don't. We believe that it's safe to take your mask off, and we felt that was important information for the public to have.

    If you're not vaccinated, that, again, is taking your responsibility for your own health into your own hands. And we would say protect yourself. We would recommend vaccination. And, if not, then I would recommend wearing a mask.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Two other particular areas I want to ask you about.

    For people who have underlying health conditions, they have been fully vaccinated, but they have those health conditions, whether it's diabetes or some respiratory issue, are these guidelines still for them?

  • Rochelle Walensky:

    So, I think there's an important question there.

    For the most part, our vaccination studies and effectiveness studies have really demonstrated that, for people with some of these underlying health conditions, that they really — the vaccines have worked quite well. Even in people who are in long-term care facilities, the vaccines are working actually quite well.

    It is the case that science has started to emerge that, if you are immune-compromised, for example, if you have had an organ transplant, or if you have cancer, if you're undergoing chemotherapy, that the vaccines in those populations might not as be — be as protective as in people who are underlyingly healthy.

    And so what we would recommend is, for those with immune-compromising conditions, as well as, really, any other conditions that affect your health, that put you at high risk of disease, that you consult your doctor before you take off your mask.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And another area I know there are a lot of questions has to do with children, indoors, outdoors, children of all ages.

    We now know that, down to age 12, the vaccines are available, but what about for young children? People are asking about summer camp, all kinds of situations. What's the guidance now for them?

  • Rochelle Walensky:

    Right.

    So, it is very clear that, in the context of the last 24 hours, where we have a new vaccine now for 12-15-year-olds and now this new guidance about being able to unmask if you're vaccinated, we do need to update our camp guidance. That is going to be among the first that we need to work towards updating.

    What I would say for the younger children, those who can't get vaccinated right now, is that we would still recommend we treat them as if they are unvaccinated, and that they should wear masks.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, for them, outdoors, though, no mask? Is that what you're saying?

  • Rochelle Walensky:

    Outdoors — right. So, the same strategies really apply.

    If you're outdoors, if you're in small gatherings, if you're mixing with people in your household or another household outdoors, same principles apply. Then you could take off your mask in outdoor settings.

    If you're wrestling, if you're gathered over a soccer ball breathing heavily, lots of kids who you don't know, we would still recommend masking in those settings.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And finally, Dr. Walensky, again, criticism in the last few days, even weeks, that the CDC guidelines have recently been confusing.

    Is this in part an effort to make it clear to people where things stand? Because there have been so many questions from people from all directions saying, they don't know what they're supposed to do.

  • Rochelle Walensky:

    I'm hopeful that this won't be confusing guidance.

    My motivation, our motivation as an agency for putting the science forward is because our cases are down, our vaccines are available, and the science is where it should be. We are working towards making guidelines that every American can understand, can easily understand. But we are motivated by the science at this agency.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, thank you very much. We appreciate it.

  • Rochelle Walensky:

    Thanks for having me.

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