RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has given Americans a choice. If you don't get the COVID-19 vaccine, you still need to cover your face with a mask. But if you get the shots, you can ditch them. The CDC announced its turnaround on masking policy yesterday. President Biden hailed it as a turning point in America's pandemic.
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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The CDC is saying they have concluded that fully vaccinated people are at a very, very low risk of getting COVID-19. Therefore, if you've been fully vaccinated, you no longer need to wear a mask.
MARTIN: But the new guidelines raise a lot of questions. Here to help us sort through them, NPR science correspondent Richard Harris. Good morning, Richard.
RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: I mean, this sounds like a huge change in policy. Is it as sweeping as it appears to be?
HARRIS: Yes. Well, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky started at her announcement yesterday painting it with a very broad brush. Here's what she said.
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ROCHELLE WALENSKY: Anyone who is fully vaccinated can participate in indoor and outdoor activities, large or small, without wearing a mask or physical distancing.
HARRIS: But then came the caveats. It doesn't apply to people on public transit or airplanes. It doesn't apply in health care settings. She also said it will be up to local officials about how the guidelines are carried out in schools, stores and other local settings. And, you know, that could be a formula for confusion.
MARTIN: Right. So let's take one example, right? Like, any kind of retail situation, a grocery store, say, is - puts a policy out saying if you're fully vaccinated, you don't have to wear a mask, just like the CDC says. But how do they ensure that that's the truth? I mean, are they going to ask people before they come in if they're - if they can prove they've been vaccinated?
HARRIS: Yeah, a good question. The CDC's point really is that vaccines are so effective at protecting people who are fully vaccinated that they basically shouldn't worry about the vaccination status of those around them. So people who aren't vaccinated are mostly a risk to themselves. But, you know, that's not always the case. Think of people who aren't able to get a vaccine, including children.
MARTIN: Right. So I want to address the fact, though, I mean, these vaccines are highly effective, but they're still not 100% effective, right? So there is still a modicum of risk.
HARRIS: There still is, although the CDC says that risk is small. Occasionally, a vaccinated person does get infected with the coronavirus, but the risk of serious illness in that circumstance is extremely low. And the CDC says vaccinated people who get infected are highly unlikely to spread the disease.
MARTIN: This is so significant to so many people. What other reactions are you hearing about the shift in policy?
HARRIS: Well, I've heard a range of views. Some scientists have said that the CDC made a mistake in not easing restrictions earlier for people who are vaccinated and worried that people would decide that there was no point in getting the shot if it didn't let them take off their masks. On the other hand, Ali Mokdad at the University of Washington says the public health message about vaccination shouldn't be about whether or not you need to wear a mask but that vaccines can prevent a deadly disease.
ALI MOKDAD: People who are not wearing their mask are the same people who are refusing the vaccine. So this policy is not going to help us to increase the vaccination out there or addressing hesitancy.
HARRIS: He's looking at this through the lens of public health, where the goal should be to stop the pandemic as quickly as possible. The new CDC guidance is really more about advice to individuals. But - so we'll have to see how that sorts out. It's a complicated thing how people will react to all of this.
MARTIN: Right and enforce all this. NPR science correspondent Richard Harris. Thank you, Richard.
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