(TNS) The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Thursday that people fully vaccinated against COVID-19 don’t need to wear face masks or social distance at gatherings of any size, a striking signal that the U.S. is returning to pre-pandemic life.
The recommendations come amid mounting evidence that the vaccines are effective in preventing COVID-19 infections and are effective against variants of the virus currently circulating in the United States, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said at a White House briefing announcing the new guidance.
Walensky said the recommendations were also made in part because of the “growing understanding” that fully vaccinated people are less likely to transmit the virus to others, and because of the recent expansion of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to children ages 12 to 15.
“Anyone who is fully vaccinated can participate in indoor and outdoor activities, large or small, without wearing a mask or physical distancing,” she said. “If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic. We have all longed for this moment when we can get back to some sense of normalcy … that moment has come for those who are fully vaccinated.”
Health experts say it takes about two weeks for immunity from the COVID-19 vaccines to kick in once people receive the shot. People are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after getting the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and two weeks after their second dose of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccine.
The new recommendations did come with a few caveats, Walensky said.
Places like health care facilities will still continue to follow their specific infection control recommendations, which may include mask wearing, Walensky said. Masks are also still recommended at crowded indoor settings including planes, buses, trains, and other forms of public transportation, at transportation hubs including airports and stations, and at correctional facilities and homeless shelters.
People who are immunocompromised should talk to their health care providers before giving up their masks completely, Walensky said. And anyone who develops symptoms of the virus should wear a mask and get tested for the disease, regardless of their vaccination status.
The CDC said people must also continue to wear face coverings where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws and regulations, including business and workplace guidance.
Walensky cited multiple studies in Thursday’s presentation, including an analysis of more than 5,500 healthcare workers in Israel which found that the Pfizer vaccine was 97% vaccine effective against symptomatic infections and 86% effective against asymptomatic infections.
She said two other studies published in the CDC found that the vaccines were 90% effective against any COVID-19 infection in a study of nearly 4,000 U.S. healthcare workers and 94% effective against hospitalizations from COVID-19 in an evaluation of 24 households in 14 states.
Walensky also cited a recent study of the Pfizer vaccine against the B.1.1.7 variant, which was initially detected in the United Kingdom, and the B.1.351 variant, which was initially detected in South Africa. The study found the vaccine provided significant protection against both infection and severe disease.
Walensky said that if cases spike again, the mask recommendation could change — but that the more people get vaccinated, the more unlikely that will become.
While current research is encouraging for those who have received the shots, Walensky said “the science is also very clear about unvaccinated people.”
“You remain at risk of mild or severe illness, of death, or of spreading the disease to others,” she said. “You should still mask, and you should get vaccinated right away.”
The new guidance also says that fully vaccinated people don’t have to get tested following an exposure to COVID-19 if they don’t have symptoms. Testing is still recommended after a known exposure for residents or employees of correctional centers, detention facilities or homeless shelters.
According to the CDC, 46.4% of the United States population have received one dose of the vaccine, while 35.4% of the population is fully vaccinated.