Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious-diseases expert, sought to dispel lingering confusion over the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new mask guidance on Wednesday.
“I think people are misinterpreting, thinking that this is a removal of a mask mandate for everyone,” Fauci told Axios. “It’s not … people either read them quickly or listen and hear half of it.” It is intended to be an “assurance to those who are vaccinated,” he clarified. “It did not explicitly say that unvaccinated people should abandon their masks. “
CDC director Rochelle Walensky also defended the new mask guidance, despite the abrupt change, on Sunday: “I want to convey that we are not saying that everybody has to take off their mask if they’re vaccinated,” she told CNN. “It’s been 16 months that we’ve been telling people to mask and this is going to be a slow process.”
The CDC guidance, issued last Thursday, said fully vaccinated people can shed masks both outdoors and indoors with a few exceptions for crowded indoor settings including buses, airplanes, hospitals, prisons, and homeless shelters. Those not fully immunized are still advised to wear masks outside their homes. “We have all longed for this moment when we can get back to some sense of normalcy,” Walensky said in making the announcement.
But last week’s update has stirred confusion because it does not carry the force of law, unlike state and local mask mandates still in effect, and because there is no way to know if the maskless stranger next to you has received a vaccine. Many appear to be split on whether the switch on messaging is something to applaud or criticize, including health-care workers. “We couldn’t even trust people to do the right thing and wear masks when it was rampant, when it was the highest it’s ever been,” Deborah Burger, president of the country’s largest nurses union, told the New York Times, which came out against the CDC guidance. “It feels like somebody has pulled the rug out from under us and taken away our protections.”
This isn’t the first time officials have come under fire for issuing confusing guidance around masks during the pandemic. During an interview with 60 Minutes in March 2020, Fauci said, “there’s no reason to be walking around with a mask.” Though he said he was not “against masks,” he was worried about health-care providers and sick people “needing them.” The next month, the CDC updated its guidelines to recommend that Americans wear masks in public.