May 27, 2021 — The CDC’s new, more relaxed mask guidance for fully vaccinated people was met with joy and relief by many U.S. residents. But the May 13 announcement has the medical community divided on whether it was the right move, according to new WebMD/Medscape poll results.
Out of 660 U.S. doctors surveyed, 57% said the CDC jumped the gun by easing restrictions prematurely. Other medical professionals took a similar position, with 63% of 1,330 nurses agreeing the mask shift came too soon.
The CDC says those vaccinated against COVID-19 are no longer required to wear masks or physically distance, regardless of the location or size of the gathering. There are some exceptions, including public transit, hospitals, homeless shelters, and prisons.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, said three large studies on how well COVID-19 vaccines work against the original virus and its variants helped inform the new guidance. One study from Israel found the vaccine to be 97% effective against symptomatic infection.
But many doctors and public health experts say vaccination rates aren’t high enough yet.
“The CDC shouldn’t have removed restrictions without requiring proof of vaccination,” tweeted Carlos del Rio, MD, an infectious disease expert and executive associate dean at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. “They could’ve said: it is still appropriate to continue masking in places where unvaccinated and vaccinated people are mixing such as grocery stores.”
Epidemiologist and health economist Eric Feigl-Ding, PhD, tweeted similar disapproval: “Not pleased at all — In a sharp turnabout from previous advice, CDC on Thursday said fully vaccinated may stop wearing masks or maintaining social distance in most indoor and outdoor settings, regardless of size, regardless of others. Too early.”
Others remain concerned about more vulnerable communities battling access issues who are still unprotected.
“If the United States had the vaccination rates of Black communities (about 27%) I don’t think the CDC would have changed the masking guidelines,” tweeted pediatrician Rhea Boyd, MD. “We should change guidelines when it is reasonable and safe for the populations made MOST vulnerable, not for those who are the least.”
Non-medical professionals are also divided on the issue. Of 2,140 WebMD readers, 49% said the changes came too early, and 51% said they would continue to wear masks in all indoor public spaces. A total of 19% said they would not wear masks at all in public – coincidentally the same percentage of respondents who expressed no interest in receiving a COVID-19 vaccine.
National Nurses United, the largest union of registered nurses in the United States, released a statement saying the shift puts people, especially front-line workers, in danger.
“This newest CDC guidance is not based on science, does not protect public health, and threatens the lives of patients, nurses, and other frontline workers across the country,” said Bonnie Castillo, a registered nurse and executive director of the union. “Now is not the time to relax protective measures, and we are outraged that the CDC has done just that while we are still in the midst of the deadliest pandemic in a century.”