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New CDC Mask Guidance: How Do We Move Forward?

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With yesterday’s announcement, a lot of questions remain about how to proceed. One expert weighs in on this significant topic including how masks have substantially helped as a COVID-19 prevention strategy.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offered some of the biggest and most surprising news yesterday when it provided new guidance regarding vaccines and wearing masks. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky announced that fully vaccinated people can participate in all indoor and outdoor activities without wearing a mask.

However, later in the day the US Transportation Department said it was going to leave its mask mandate in place through September 13. This means people traveling on planes, trains, and buses will continue to be required to wear masks. And in flying, the mask mandate has been especially problematic as the Federal Aviation Administration has received more than 1300 reports of unruly passengers in the last 3 months.

There are other uncertainties in society on how to proceed with masks as well. Just this week, the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine was authorized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for children as young as 12. However, if kids younger than 12 do not have a vaccine authorized for them come the fall, will kids in that age group continue to wear masks in schools? And what about schools that have students younger and older than 12? School administrators may have a difficult time with a population of both vaccine-eligible and vaccine-ineligible students.

It is important to remember the CDC’s announcement is simply guidance for the public and there are no laws or enforcement behind the CDC statements. States, businesses, and individuals will have to decipher how they want to move forward. For example, restaurants, markets, and other businesses that interact with the public and potentially with people who are not vaccinated, will they want to consider having their employees continue to wear masks for a while?

While questions remain, the good news also emerging from yesterday’s guidance decision is that as more people are vaccinated, the incidence and mortality rates continue to decline.

“We are continuing to see low levels of transmission in many communities and that is definitely promising news,” Emily Sickbert-Bennett, PhD, MS, director, UNC Medical Center Infection Prevention, administrative director, UNC Medical Center Antimicrobial Stewardship Program UNC School of Medicine, said.

Contagion spoke with Sickbert-Bennett about the success of virus control strategies, the concerns of public health as it relates to the new mask guidance and the unvaccinated, and how mask wearing has been a significant part of the 2-pronged prevention strategy.