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CDC director defends new mask guidance

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Sunday that

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Sunday that the guidance created a "building block" for officials. Credit: Bloomberg/Greg Nash

The federal health official who announced that vaccinated people can go maskless in public places defended the new guidance Sunday but cautioned against widespread mask removals.

Last week's announcement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said vaccinated Americans no longer had to wear masks or stick to social distancing rules in most indoor and outside settings.

The guidance prompted confusion in many states and counties across the country.

"This was not permission to shed masks for everybody, everywhere," said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the CDC, on NBC's "Meet the Press." "This was really science-driven individual assessment of your risk."

Governors of some states have dropped the masking and social distancing requirements for the vaccinated, citing increased inoculations and falling COVID-19 infection rates.

The CDC guidance does not apply to certain crowded areas, public transportation, or health care facilities. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has not yet announced whether New York will implement the guidance.

On Wednesday, however, New York State will take its biggest step yet toward normalcy, as capacity limits for most venues are set to be lifted.

Restaurants, houses of worship, gyms, stores, hair salons and other venues can operate at 100% capacity, if there is six-foot social distancing. In New York, mask wearing rules remain in effect.

Maximum capacity for big gatherings will rise, and full capacity at large venues — including Yankee Stadium and Citi Field — will be allowed in sections for vaccinated people, with unvaccinated people socially distanced from one another.

Health experts have disagreed on the wisdom of lifting restrictions.

"The fact you’re relaxing restrictions and enabling people to be close together not wearing a mask at least some or all of the time is a very dangerous situation," Dr. Stanley H. Weiss, an epidemiologist and professor at the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and the Rutgers School of Public Health, has told Newsday.

Walensky said the CDC's guidance created a "building block" for officials who are revising thousands of pages of guidance for schools, camps, travel and businesses.

"It was very clear that places were starting to make their own assessments, and we wanted to make sure they understood it was safe at the individual level," she said. "We needed this building block, this first step, so that we could say this is the science upon which all future guidance will be based upon."

Since the announcement, major retailers across the U.S. — such as Costco, Publix, Starbucks and Walmart — have dropped masking requirements for vaccinated customers. The companies will abide by an "honor system" in trusting that only the inoculated will shop maskless.

Fully vaccinated means waiting two weeks after receiving two shots of either the Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, or two weeks after the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

"We are asking people to be honest with themselves. 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," Walensky said.

There are no plans for a federal order mandating vaccines.

"We're not counting on vaccine mandates at all. It may very well be that local businesses, local jurisdictions will work towards vaccine mandates. That is going to be locally driven and not federally driven," Walensky said.

Also Sunday, Walensky said there would be no new guidance for school districts during the current academic year.

On the local level, Nassau County Executive Laura Curran has called on Cuomo to immediately adopt the CDC's guidelines.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, on CBS' "Face the Nation," explained the reason for the new guidance.

"There's been an accumulation of data showing in the real world, effectiveness of the vaccines," Fauci said.

With David Olson