The CDC embraces the power of the vaccines

Over the past few months, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was criticized for playing it too cautiously with its Covid-19 guidance. The agency had recommended people wear masks outdoors, even kids in the outdoor heat of summer camp. It has overestimated the risk of outdoor spread and surface transmission. It was too slow to tell the fully vaccinated that they can go about their lives, living closer to normal.

So experts argued that the CDC was failing to seize on a moment of victory: Vaccines are triumphing over the virus. The US needs more people to get the shots — and needs to encourage them to do so with the promise of a light at the end of the tunnel.

But on Thursday, the CDC leaped ahead of the criticisms — announcing that it no longer recommends the vaccinated mask up, even in most indoor settings. The agency named a few specific exceptions for health care settings, public transportation, prisons, jails, and homeless shelters. And people should continue to follow local and state laws. But the overall message was unambiguous: Vaccinated Americans can start getting back to normal.

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“The science is clear: If you are fully vaccinated, you are protected, and you can start doing the things that you stopped doing because of the pandemic,” the CDC said in a statement.

With the news, the CDC snapped out of its cautious ways, moving faster than widely expected, given that the majority of Americans still aren’t fully vaccinated. And it finally embraced the power of the Covid-19 vaccines.

For months, some experts have lamented that the vaccines were being undersold. Clinical trials and real-world evidence have found the shots are very effective, nearly eliminating the risk of severe disease, hospitalization, and death. Recent research, including from the CDC, also found that the shots seem to stop the vaccinated from transmitting the virus to others. And data from Israel, as well as early signs in the US, suggests that mass vaccination truly causes Covid-19 cases and deaths to plummet.

As vaccination rates in America began to plateau then fall, it seemed more urgent for the agency to signal that vaccines will let people return to normal by dangling a huge incentive — a normal post-pandemic life — in front of unvaccinated people. It’s that pressure, along with the mounting evidence of vaccines’ effectiveness, that seems to have led the CDC to change course.

A big question with the CDC’s new guidance is how it will be carried out in the real world. In public settings, are people simply supposed to trust that the maskless are vaccinated? Will businesses start asking for proof of vaccination before someone can shed the mask? Will there be any enforcement at all, or will the assumption be that the unvaccinated are left to fend for themselves? All of that remains to be seen.

Still, this is a big step for America toward a post-pandemic normal. As CDC director Rochelle Walensky told reporters on Thursday, “We have all longed for this moment — when we can get back to some sense of normalcy. Based on the continuing downward trajectory of cases, the scientific data on the performance of our vaccines, and our understanding of how the virus spreads, that moment has come for those who are fully vaccinated.”