A mask break: Federal health officials say vaccinated people can doff face coverings when outside, away from crowds

People who are fully vaccinated against Covid-19 no longer need to wear masks while outside in uncrowded areas or in small groups, federal health officials said Tuesday as part of updated guidance.

The federal health officials urged people — even those who are vaccinated — to continue wearing masks in indoor settings like the grocery store or houses of worship as a way to protect others who are not yet vaccinated and to reduce transmission. They also said people should continue to use face coverings in crowded areas even if outdoors, at events like sports games or concerts where distancing is more difficult. While the available Covid-19 vaccines are incredibly powerful at preventing illness and are cutting transmission, some people do contract the virus after being immunized. (Researchers are still trying to understand just how efficiently people who have these so-called breakthrough infections can transmit the virus to others; it’s possible the vaccines cut down on how contagious they are.)

At a briefing Tuesday, Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, noted that experts over the past year had been focused on what Americans shouldn’t do. “Today I’m going to tell you some of the things you can do, if you are fully vaccinated,” she said in announcing the updated mask recommendations.

The message from federal health officials is likely to lead to policy changes around the country. Already, some states have lifted mask mandates entirely as their cases counts have dropped after the devastating winter surge.

Some public health experts had been urging government officials to make such a recommendation on outdoor mask-wearing not only because outdoor transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus is such a rare event, but also to signal to the public that with vaccines comes greater freedoms. More places in the country are reaching the point where they have more vaccine supply available than people eager to get shots, a circumstance that reflects not only resistance, for some, but also access issues, like how easy it is for people to make appointments and get to an administration site. 

People are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after their final dose of the vaccine if they receive the two-shot immunizations from Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna, or two weeks after getting the single shot from Johnson & Johnson.

Federal officials first urged Americans to start wearing masks in public more than a year ago, in early April. 

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