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CDC director defends lifting mask guidance for vaccinated

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky is seen during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing to discuss the on-going federal response to COVID-19, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., May 11, 2021.

Greg Nash | Pool | Reuters

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky defended the agency’s decision to lift its mask guidance last week for people who are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, as state and local health officials grapple with whether to follow suit.

“This was not permission to shed masks for everybody everywhere. This was really science driven, individual assessment of your risk,” Walensky said Sunday morning on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance Thursday, saying it’s safe for fully vaccinated Americans to remove their masks in most settings, whether they are outside or indoors. It’s the first time in more than a year that the federal government has encouraged ditching masks, and marks a major turning point for the pandemic.

“Right now, the data, the science, shows us that it is safe for vaccinated people to take off their mask. I, as the CDC director, promised the American people I would convey that science to you when I knew it and that’s what I did Thursday,” Walensky said.

The agency’s recommendation has been criticized as being too ambiguous or rushed. It’s also not mandatory, so states, municipalities and businesses can make the choice whether or not to follow it. There’s also no definitive way to track who has received a vaccine, and many places will have to work on a sort of honor system.

“We are asking people to be honest with themselves,” Walensky said. “If they are vaccinated and they are not wearing a mask, they are safe. If they are not vaccinated and they are not wearing a mask, they are not safe.”

Some states and companies have already decided to keep mask mandates in place. New Jersey and Hawaii will ask people to continue to wear masks indoors. Some retailers, including Target, Gap, Home Depot and Ulta Beauty, have also said they’ll keep pandemic protocols in place.

“Essential workers are still forced to play mask police for shoppers who are unvaccinated and refuse to follow local COVID safety measures. Are they now supposed to become the vaccination police?,” Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, said in a statement shared with CNBC on Friday.

Others have lauded the decision, saying it could encourage more people to get vaccinated against the virus as the pace of shots given has slowed in recent weeks.

Illinois, Connecticut, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington, Minnesota, Nevada, Kentucky and Oregon have all said they would relax their mask rules. Texas had lifted its mask mandates before the CDC’s recommendation.

Additionally, officials from New York and California, two of the hardest hit states, are currently reviewing the CDC’s changes and have not yet given guidance, meaning mandates are still in place.

As of Friday, more than 156 million Americans have received at least one dose of a Covid vaccine, according to the CDC. Aboutfd 121 million are fully vaccinated, according to the agency.