Coronavirus: CDC announces updated mask guidance

WASHINGTON — U.S. health officials on Tuesday announced updated recommendations for Americans who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

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Guidance released last month by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention allowed for fully vaccinated people to visit with others who have also been fully vaccinated “in small gatherings indoors without wearing masks or physical distancing.” However, health officials urged all people to continue wearing masks and practicing social distancing while in public.

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Update 2:15 p.m. ET April 27: President Joe Biden urged Americans to get vaccinated, calling it a “patriotic duty,” after CDC officials announced that fully vaccinated people can safely participate in outdoor activities without wearing masks.

“The CDC is able to make this announcement because our scientists are convinced by the dat that the odds of getting or giving the virus to others is very, very low if you’ve both been fully vaccinated and (you’re) out in the open air,” Biden said Tuesday. “Beginning today, gathering with a group of friends in a park, going for a picnic -- as long as you are vaccinated and outdoors, you can do it without a mask.”

He said the new guidelines provide Americans with “another great reason to go get vaccinated now.”

“Yes, the vaccines are about saving your life (and) the lives of the people around you, but they’re also about helping to get us... back to closer to normal in our living,” the president said. “Getting together with friends, going to the park for a picnic without needing to mask up -- we’re back to that place now, as long as you get vaccinated.”

Update 12:40 p.m. ET April 27: CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky shared several activities on Tuesday which health officials have deemed are safe for masked, fully vaccinated people as more Americans get immunized against COVID-19.

Among the activities were visiting a barber or a hair salon, riding public transportation with limited occupancy and singing in an outdoor chorus.

“As we gather more and more data on the real-world efficacy of vaccines, we know that masked fully vaccinated people can safely attend worship services inside, go to an indoor restaurant or bar and even participate in an indoor exercise class,” Walensky said during a White House COVID-19 Response Team news conference.

She emphasized that health officials continue to recommend masking indoors, even for fully vaccinated Americans.

“Although these vaccines are extremely effective, we know that the virus spreads very well indoors,” she said. “Until more people are vaccinated, and while we still have more than 50,000 cases a day, mask use indoors will provide extra protection.”

She urged people who have not yet been vaccinated to get their shots.

“When you are fully vaccinated, you can return to many activities safely and most of them outdoors and unmasked and begin to get back to normal,” she said. “And the more people who are vaccinated, the more steps we can take toward spending time with people we love, doing the things we love to enjoy.”

Update 12:30 p.m. ET April 27: Dr. Rochelle Walensky, head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on Tuesday outlined several outdoor activities that health officials have determined are safe to do unmasked for individuals who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

“If you are fully vaccinated and want to attend a small outdoor gathering with people who are vaccinated and unvaccinated, or dine at an outdoor restaurant with friends from multiple households, the sciences shows -- if you are vaccinated -- you can do so safely unmasked,” she said. “However, we continue to recommend masking in crowded outdoor settings and venues, such as packed stadiums and concerts, where there is decreased ability to maintain physical distance and where many unvaccinated people may also be present.”

The update is based on a growing amount of research which shows outdoor activities pose a low risk of spreading COVID-19.

“I know that we all miss the things that we used to do before the pandemic and I know that we all want to get back to doing those things that we love, and soon,” she said. “Today is another day we can take a step back to the normalcy of before.”

More than 54% of the U.S. population has received at least one dose of any of the available COVID-19 vaccines, officials said.

“If you are fully vaccinated, things are much safer for you than those who are not yet fully vaccinated,” Walensky said.

Update 12:20 p.m. ET April 27: Citing federal health officials, The New York Times reported that fully vaccinated Americans no longer need to wear masks outdoors while walking, running, hiking or biking alone or with members of their families.

Officials also said fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks while attending small outdoor gatherings, according to the Times.

People are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after they’ve received their last required dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Original report: The nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said Sunday during an appearance on ABC News’ “This Week” program that the risk to vaccinated people wearing masks outdoors is “minuscule.”

“What I believe you’re going to be hearing, what the country is going to be hearing soon is updated guidelines from the CDC,” Fauci said. “The CDC is a science-based organization. They don’t want to make any guidelines unless they look at the data, and the data backs it up. But when you look around at the commonsense situation, obviously, the risk is really very low, particularly if you are vaccinated.”

The New York Times reported Tuesday that research indicates that the risk of spreading COVID-19 is “far lower outdoors than indoors,” citing experts who pointed to the way viral particles disperse outdoors.

“Transmissions do not take place between solitary individuals going for a walk, transiently passing each other on the street, a hiking trail, or a jogging track,” Dr. Paul Sax wrote last week in a blog post for The New England Journal of Medicine. “That biker who whizzes by without a mask poses no danger to us, at least from a resipiratory virus perspective.”

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Dr. Rochelle Walensky, head of the CDC, said during an appearance Thursday on NBC’s “Today” show that officials were “looking at” the question of outdoor masking.

“While we are really trying to scale up vaccination, we have this complex message that we still have hotspots in this country,” Walensky said, pointing to the still-rising number of COVID-19 cases being reported nationwide. “We will be looking at the outdoor masking question, but it’s also in the context of the fact that we still have people who are dying of COVID.”

As of Monday morning, nearly 141 million Americans have received at least one dose of one of the available COVID-19 vaccines, according to the latest data available from the CDC. About 96 million people across the U.S. have so far been fully vaccinated, officials said, amounting to nearly 29% of the total population.

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The U.S. continues to lead the world with the highest number of COVID-19 cases. As of Tuesday morning, 32.1 million Americans have been diagnosed with the viral infection, resulting in over 572,000 deaths, according to a tally from Johns Hopkins University.

Globally, 147.9 million COVID-19 cases have been reported, resulting in 3.1 million deaths.