Soon after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced updated guidelines on mask use and physical distancing last week, there were some who were quick to criticize the move. They called attention to the confusion generated among the public, businesses, and local governments. While it is certainly true that these new recommendations did result in a level of angst — after all, we have been wearing masks in public for over a year — the data and the experience around the country is unequivocal in confirming that vaccinated individuals may safely socialize both outdoors and indoors without masks and without physical distancing. Vaccinated individuals have an extremely low risk of contracting COVID-19 and of spreading the virus to others.
Some note that the CDC, and the state and local governments who quickly adopted the recommendations by lifting restrictions, should have made the changes occur at a future date, such as the date of July 4th as identified in the Vermont Forward Plan. Doing so would have given individuals and businesses more time to prepare. So why did the guideline change for vaccinated individuals occur so rapidly? There are three main reasons.
The first reason is that the CDC has been the subject of blame in recent weeks. Groups have pointed out that the CDC has been slow to respond to new information. Thus, had the agency not made the new updates, it may have been accused of a lack of transparency in keeping new data from the public. Certain event organizers and business owners, whose work has taken a significant hit due to physical distancing requirements, would have had the right to be angry. They would have charged that the CDC sat on information proving that vaccinated people can safely remove masks in public and not be required to distance.
Second, the CDC does not make regulations. The CDC is a medical and scientific advisory body with the responsibility of disseminating information to those in government and organizations who create regulations and policies. The CDC does try to foster consensus and provide direction, but it does not garner significant authority. Thus, it is important that the agency release findings as soon as they are confirmed.
Finally, with vaccine rates dropping in many parts of the country, the CDC saw an opportunity to take a different approach to encouraging vaccination. There are many reasons why some people have yet to be vaccinated. Releasing new guidelines that spotlight how protective the vaccines are against COVID-19 will motivate certain individuals to get the shot.
With the above information, how should we go about our daily lives, especially over the next few weeks during such a transitional time? Change is hard, complex, and filled with emotions, anxieties, and judgments. The confusion will dissipate quickly in society. If you are vaccinated, you should do what makes you comfortable. Take a mask with you. If the business you are visiting has a sign that says to wear a mask, then put it on. If there is no sign, and you feel comfortable, then put the mask back in your pocket and know that you are safe.
Many of us worry that we do not know whether someone is vaccinated. The idea that someone next to you in the grocery aisle or in your office may not be vaccinated can be anxiety-provoking. This concern is precisely why the CDC provided the update, as the experience demonstrates that vaccinated individuals are very safe in such a situation, especially in Vermont where 75% of those eligible have received at least one shot and 50 percent of the total population has been fully vaccinated.
If you are not vaccinated, it is a great time to do so. Nearly every clinic now allows walk-ins, although registering will make your experience even faster. Becoming vaccinated will make life more joyful, as you can socialize and travel freely without worry of getting infected or spreading the virus to others.
Masks have been crucial in limiting disease in the pandemic. They also have many downsides. They have a negative impact on communication, how we express ourselves, and our familiarity with one another.
For those of you who are vaccinated, take as longs as you need to make the adjustment to a mask-free life, and feel confident that you are now safe and free.