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When do I need a mask? Understanding the CDC’s post-vaccine guidance

The CDC announced new guidance about wearing masks today, specifically when masks are no longer needed outside for vaccinated people. The latest recommendations maintain important warnings about masking indoors and in crowds outside. To understand more about this revised guidance and what's safe post-vaccination, Judy Woodruff speaks to Dr. Richard Besser, the former acting director of the CDC.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    President Biden announced new guidance about wearing masks today, and specifically when masks are no longer needed outside for vaccinated people.

    The latest recommendations still maintain important warnings about masking indoors and in crowds outside.

    The president, who has said he hopes the country is moving toward a more normal summer, made his remarks outside.

  • Pres. Joe Biden:

    Starting today, if you're fully vaccinated and you are outdoors, you need — and not in a big crowd, you no longer need to wear a mask.

    I want to be absolutely clear. If you're in a crowd like a stadium or at a conference or a concert, you still need to wear a mask, even if you are outside.

    But, beginning today, gathering with a group of friends in a park, going for a picnic, as long as you are vaccinated and outdoors, you can do it without a mask.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Shortly before the president spoke, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said she hoped the changes will entice more Americans to get vaccinated. And she noted that vaccinations will enable Americans to do more indoor activities safely as well.

  • Dr. Rochelle Walensky:

    As we gather more and more data on the real-world efficacy of vaccines, we know that masked, fully vaccinated people can safely attend worship services inside, go to an indoor restaurant or bar, and even participate in an indoor exercise class.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let's understand more now about this revised guidance with masking and what's safer to do with full vaccinations.

    Dr. Richard Besser is the former acting director of the CDC. He is also president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which is a "NewsHour" funder.

    Dr. Richard Besser, thank you so much for joining us again.

    We heard Dr. Walensky refer to this as a step back to normalcy. Let's go back over the most important part of these new guidelines, mainly with regard to what fully vaccinated people can do, and starting with outdoors.

    How is that changing?

  • Dr. Richard Besser:

    Well, it's exciting.

    For so long, we have been telling people, go ahead, get vaccinated, it's critically important, but nothing in your life will change. What we're hearing today is that there are significant changes. If you are fully vaccinated, it's safe to go outside without a mask on, as long as you're not in crowded places.

    And that means a lot of places. You can go out for walks. You can go to the park. You can go walking down the street. As long as you're not in a crowded place, you can do that without a mask and recognize that it's a pretty safe thing do.

    You can get together with small groups of friends who are vaccinated, and you can be with people who aren't vaccinated as well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And how does one term what is a large — too large a crowd to be comfortable in without a mask?

  • Richard Besser:

    The CDC is a little dodgy on what's a small crowd and what's a large crowd. And some depends on the circumstances.

    If you're in a state where there's still a lot of community transmission, if you're in Michigan, you're going to want to be much more careful about crowds than if you're in a place where the numbers are really, really low.

    So, if you can swing your arms around you, I think you're in an area where you're not too crowded. If you're shoulder to shoulder, that's probably a place where you may want to think about keeping that mask on.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And they're also giving some new guidance with regard to indoors, saying, again, if you're fully vaccinated, you can be indoors in your own home or another small setting with others who are fully vaccinated, and even with some who aren't, as long as they're not at high risk.

  • Richard Besser:

    That's right.

    People think about risk often as there is risk or there's no risk. And it's really on a scale. And some depends on whether you're somebody who has medical factors that put you at increased risk of severe disease, or whether you're around people who have that.

    And then you want to be a little a little bit more careful. But one of the other things that they talk about are settings where you still may need to wear a mask, but they're pretty safe if you're fully vaccinated, so indoor dining, going to get your haircut, being in stores and in places where in the past you might be a little nervous about that.

    They recommend wearing a mask, so that — because of the very small chance that you could spread this to someone else. But it's considered a very safe activity.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, still, the big message coming through is, if you're not yet fully vaccinated, get vaccinated. We heard that time and again today.

  • Richard Besser:

    The other piece of that, Judy, is that only about half the states are breaking down vaccination data by race and ethnicity.

    And we know that this pandemic has hit communities of color, Black, Latino, Native American communities, the hardest. And so it's not just about saying go ahead and get vaccinated. It's about states and localities upping the game, getting vaccines to people where they are, because what we have seen is this massive rush for vaccination, and now the numbers are going down.

    The numbers are going down because the backlog has been met. And now it's all about making it as easy as possible for people where it may be challenging. They may not get time off work. It may be harder to travel to a vaccine site. Get them to people where they are, report data by race and ethnicity, so you can see areas where you may have to target additional resources.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    One other thing I want to ask you about, Dr. Rich Besser, and that is an article that you co-wrote in the last few days about your concern that not enough attention is being paid to the safety of children in this pandemic.

    Can you expand on that?

  • Richard Besser:

    Yes, Judy, I'm a pediatrician and I'm a parent.

    And one of the silver linings in this pandemic is, thankfully, children don't have as severe disease, they're less likely to be hospitalized and die. But I think, because of that, we haven't paid enough attention to children and their needs.

    There have been hundreds of children who've died. There have been a few thousand who've developed this unusual inflammatory syndrome, and we don't know the long term consequences there. And then the social and emotional impact on children, from missing school, from not being in their social groups, from losing parents, the needs of children have to be met.

    And I think, until there are safe and effective vaccines for children, we're not going to be done with this pandemic. And we really have to heed the guidance from CDC and state and local public health.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that's a sobering reminder for all of us who — whether we have children or grandchildren or friends' children, and certainly with regard to schools.

  • Richard Besser:

    That's right.

    And when you look at the challenges in schools, it's not being borne evenly. Black and brown children are much more likely to be in schools that aren't able to provide in person learning. Thankfully, in the American Rescue act, there's a lot of money there for schools.

    We need to make sure that goes to schools to provide the kind of ventilation and allows them to hire the staff and do the things to make school a safe place for all children. That's what this next phase is really about, as we're ramping down, because, in the fall, there may be vaccines for middle school and high school aged-children, but there won't be vaccines for younger children.

    And we want to get every child in America back in school learning.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And so many people paying attention to that and waiting — waiting for more good news about vaccines for children.

    Dr. Richard Besser, president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, thank you so much.

  • Richard Besser:

    Thanks very much, Judy.

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