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CDC Criticized For Confusing Updated Mask Recommendation


Did you go out and about this weekend? How many unmasked faces did you see? About 123 million people in the U.S. are now fully vaccinated. That is 37% of the total population. And the CDC, of course, is now said fully vaccinated people can stop wearing a mask in almost all settings. There is still a lot of criticism and questions about that decision, though. And we are going to go through them with NPR's Allison Aubrey. Good morning, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: I mean, I don't know about you, but it was kind of crazy. I was in Rock Creek Park here in Washington, D.C., over the weekend. And, you know, I was running. I didn't wear a mask per CDC guidance. And most of the people I saw weren't wearing masks either.

AUBREY: Yeah, it does feel like such an abrupt change. I mean, taking off masks kind of feels a bit like coming out of hiding.

MARTIN: Right.

AUBREY: And many retailers are dropping their masking requirements, of course, including Trader Joe's, Costco, Starbucks, Walmart. Walmart says it supports employees who may choose to continue to wear masks even if they're fully vaccinated. I mean, it has become such a habit and some people find comfort in this and protection. Now, yesterday, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky was pressed about this new policy, and she cautioned that masks will still be with us for a while. Even among vaccinated people, masking is still recommended on public transportation. Also masking is still recommended in schools. Here she is on NBC.


ROCHELLE WALENSKY: This was not permission to shed masks for everybody everywhere. This was really science driven, individual assessment of your risk. And now we all need to work together. And CDC is hard at work now saying what does this mean for schools, for travel, for camps, for businesses?

AUBREY: So she's saying that there's more updated guidance to come. Now, given, Rachel, that it is hard to know who is or who is not vaccinated, the new recommendations really just depend on the honor system. And Walensky asked people to be honest with themselves because people who are not vaccinated are putting themselves at risk.

MARTIN: But, I mean, a lot of people just don't want it to come down to the honor system. They think this is - the risks are too high to just trust someone's individual choice.

AUBREY: That's right. I mean, there are definitely critics. Mark Perrone is president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents about 1.3 million front-line retail and grocery store workers. He says the guidance is confusing, that the CDC hasn't fully considered how it will impact essential workers who are frequently exposed to people who are not vaccinated and refuse to wear a mask.

MARK PERRONE: I think that the guidance should be that people should wear masks, at least until we get to that herd immunity number. We're not there yet. We only have about 40% of the population fully vaccinated. And I think that we could have waited another couple of months.

AUBREY: There are similar concerns, Rachel, from nurses. The leaders of National Nurses United, which is the largest union of registered nurses in the U.S., say the new policy may threaten the lives of patients, nurses and other front-line workers across the country.

MARTIN: We should also just say elsewhere in the program today, we're hearing about how Americans are really fixated on this idea of herd immunity, and it is actually quite elusive.


MARTIN: So I want to know, like, is this really the mask policy - is it about creating an incentive for people to get vaccinated? And is that likely to work?

AUBREY: You know, I think that's the hope. I mean, when Walmart announced it was lifting its masking requirement, the company also announced a $75 cash bonus for employees who opt to get the shots. When the governor of Kentucky, Andy Beshear, announced the lifting of the state's mask mandate, he urged people to go out and get that shot, saying there are hundreds of thousands of available appointments. Now, in the days leading up to this announcement, the number of daily vaccinations had declined quite a bit around the nation. So there is still a lot of work to do to motivate people, it seems. And one factor to watch is the demand from families with 12 to 15-year-olds. I spoke to Rodrigo Martinez of CIC Health. They operate vaccination centers in Massachusetts, including one at the Chelsea Senior Center. And since they began vaccinating adolescents 12 to 15 last week, they've had strong turnout.

RODRIGO MARTINEZ: I'm actually here at the front of the line of the walk-ins, and there's a family with three kids, 14 and another friend actually, 14, and another daughter, 12. So we definitely seeing the numbers increasing, which is great.

AUBREY: Kids typically come with a parent, of course, and Massachusetts requires a parental consent. But in some states and the District of Columbia, teens may consent to a vaccine on their own if certain conditions are met.

MARTIN: And what about younger kids under 12? They aren't eligible for the vaccine. Do we have any sense of when that could happen?

AUBREY: Well, clinical trials are ongoing, and the spots for those trials have filled up quickly. The practice where my kids go had a lottery because there was such high demand, so many families wanted in to that trial. The president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. Lee Beers, says pediatricians are hearing that September is a reasonable estimate, depending on the data and the review process by the FDA. For now, the focus really is on these middle and high school kids, getting them vaccinated. I spoke to Dr. Beers' 12-year-old, Jonah Beers, who was just vaccinated over the weekend.

JONAH BEERS: Most of my friends have either been vaccinated or are getting vaccinated this week. So my message would be that they should get the vaccine because it would help everybody get back to normal and so that you can, like, hang out with your friends.

AUBREY: He told me he'd be fully vaccinated just in time for his 13th birthday, which he says will be nice because last year, it was a virtual party. And who wants that?

MARTIN: Nobody, my friend.

AUBREY: Right.

MARTIN: Nobody. So while I've got you, I want to ask about something some people are concerned about, right? Like, breakthrough infections - we saw this, all these positive cases, with the New York Yankees, the baseball team in New York. I mean, those players have been vaccinated and there was still an outbreak of COVID.

AUBREY: Yeah, no doubt this can be unsettling to see those headlines. But if you really look at the numbers, breakthrough cases are pretty uncommon, especially ones that lead to serious disease. Now, in the case of the Yankees, nine people, including coaches, staff members and a player, tested positive. They had received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which was shown in a clinical trial to be about 85% effective against severe illness from COVID-19. I spoke to virologist Angela Rasmussen of the University of Saskatchewan about this.

ANGELA RASMUSSEN: I think that breakthrough infections are really something that we would expect because no vaccine is 100% effective. But if they're not getting sick because of those breakthrough infections and the vast majority of those Yankees players were asymptomatic, they're not transmitting it to others, it's really much less of a concern.

AUBREY: The CDC has been tracking breakthrough infections and variants of concern and looking into this cluster of positives in New York.

MARTIN: All right, NPR's Allison Aubrey. We appreciate you, Allison. Thank you.

AUBREY: Great to be here, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.