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May 14, 2021

Fully vaccinated people no longer need face masks indoors or outdoors, CDC says

Pennsylvania ends its face-mask mandate, but only for people who have gotten their shots. Mandates remain in effect in Philly and New Jersey

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CDC No Mask Vaccinated VLADIMIR SMIRNOV/TASS/SIPA USA

New guidance from the CDC says people who are fully vaccinated no longer need to wear face masks in most indoor and outdoor settings. The agency cited studies showing the high level of effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines.

People fully vaccinated against the coronavirus do not need to wear face masks, in most situations, in either indoor or outdoor settings, the Centers for Disease Control said Thursday afternoon, prompting Pennsylvania health officials to immediately end that state's mask mandate for people who received their shots.

Face mask mandates in Philadelphia and New Jersey remain in place for now.

The CDC's change marks a major policy shift in what has been one of the hallmarks of public health during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The CDC's new guidance – developed in response to the effectiveness of vaccines at preventing the spread of the coronavirus and reducing hospitalizations – states it is no longer necessary for vaccinated people to wear masks or practice social distancing anywhere, except in where required by federal or local law or where required by local businesses or workplaces. Fully vaccinated people also do not need to get tested after being exposed to someone positive for COVID-19 unless they work or live in a prison or jail or a homeless shelter.

"If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic," CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during a White House COVID-19 briefing. "We have all longed for this moment when we can get back to some sense of normalcy."

It's not yet clear whether Philadelphia will adopt the changes. 

Pennsylvania had planned to lift its mask mandate only when 70% of the state's population has been fully vaccinated. Instead with the new CDC guidance, only unvaccinated people will still be required to wear face masks until Pennsylvania reaches that threshold.

"This is another incentive to get the vaccine that is now easily and conveniently available," Pennsylvania Acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam tweeted Thursday afternoon. "Once 70% of Pennsylvanians over 18 are fully vaccinated, we can completely lift the masking order." 

Pennsylvania still appears on track to remove all other COVID-19 mitigation measures on Memorial Day – those include restrictions on capacities at businesses, live events and other venues.

Philadelphia plans to lift all remaining COVID-19 restrictions on June 11, but has not yet provided a firm timeline for removing mask requirements. City officials said they are reviewing the new CDC guidance and should reach a decision in the coming days. 

"Masks have been one of the most effective tools we have in stopping the spread of COVID-19," the city said Friday. "The Health Department wants to make sure that all of the implications of allowing people who have been fully vaccinated against COVID to go unmasked is understood." 

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy will not end his state's mask mandate yet, his office said Friday after reviewing CDC announcement. 

But fully vaccinated residents will no longer need to wear face masks outdoors and at small private gatherings, such as at their homes with family and friends.

Unvaccinated residents should still wear masks in crowded outdoor settings where social distancing isn't possible, Murphy said. Businesses will still have the right to implement their own mask guidance.

The state hopes to lift its indoor mask mandate in public settings in the coming weeks, Murphy said.

Murphy tweeted Thursday afternoon that the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in the state had dipped below 1,000 for the first time in six months.

New Jersey expects to lift most remaining COVID-19 restrictions on May 19, but no specific timeline was given for changes to the state's mask requirements.

Pennsylvania recently made adjustments to the state's face mask mandate to allow fully vaccinated people to go without them outdoors as long as they are not in crowds, based on revised CDC guidelines. 

But the new CDC guidance takes a much bigger step, allowing fully vaccinated people to enter most indoor settings without a mask. Exceptions are expected to possibly include airplanes, hospitals and other health care settings, according to the Washington Post. Those who have compromised immune systems also will be advised to consult their doctors about how to proceed.

New COVID-19 cases have fallen across the majority of the United States in recent weeks as vaccination rates continue to rise. Indoor transmission of the virus has been one of the most common routes of infection throughout the course of the pandemic and was generally the focus of restrictions. Concerns have remained about transmission of more contagious COVID-19 variants, but the vaccines are thought to be effective in preventing serious illness from the variants, as well.

People are considered fully vaccinated against COVID-19 two weeks after they have received their final vaccine dose. CDC data indicates about 35.4% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, while 46.4% have received at least one vaccine dose.

Though not widespread, breakthrough COVID-19 infections, resulting in mild illness, have been reported in more than 9,200 of the 117 million Americans who have been fully vaccinated, according to CDC data.

The CDC's guidance that inoculated people can safely go maskless in public is intended, in part, to incentivize ongoing vaccination efforts,  offering a return to normals as a reason for people to get their shot, among those who have remained hesitant.

Whether or not people will see the change as an invitation to ditch masks indoors without getting vaccinated remains to be seen, but opposition to masking throughout the pandemic suggests that may be an inevitable risk.

"This is a day that I think will be marked as a true turning point in the pandemic in the United States," Richard Besser, former acting director of the CDC and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, told the Washington Post. "The idea that people who are fully vaccinated can take off their masks, can go outside, can go inside, be around people and not have to worry about covid anymore, that's absolutely huge."

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