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Vaccinated Can Largely Ditch Masks     05/14 06:07

   In a major step toward returning to pre-pandemic life, the Centers for 
Disease Control and Prevention eased mask-wearing guidance for fully vaccinated 
people on Thursday, allowing them to stop wearing masks outdoors in crowds and 
in most indoor settings.

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- In a major step toward returning to pre-pandemic life, 
the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eased mask-wearing guidance for 
fully vaccinated people on Thursday, allowing them to stop wearing masks 
outdoors in crowds and in most indoor settings.

   "Today is a great day for America," President Joe Biden said during a Rose 
Garden address heralding the new guidance, an event where he and his staff went 
without masks. Hours earlier in the Oval Office, where Biden was meeting with 
vaccinated Republican lawmakers, he led the group in removing their masks when 
the guidance was announced.

   "If you are fully vaccinated, you no longer need to wear a mask," he said, 
summarizing the new guidance and encouraging more Americans to roll up their 
sleeves. "Get vaccinated -- or wear a mask until you do."

   The guidance still calls for wearing masks in crowded indoor settings like 
buses, planes, hospitals, prisons and homeless shelters, but it will help clear 
the way for reopening workplaces, schools and other venues -- even removing the 
need for social distancing for those who are fully vaccinated.

   "We have all longed for this moment -- when we can get back to some sense of 
normalcy," Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, said at an earlier White 
House briefing.

   The CDC and the Biden administration have faced pressure to ease 
restrictions on fully vaccinated people -- those who are two weeks past their 
last required COVID-19 vaccine dose -- in part to highlight the benefits of 
getting the shot. The country's aggressive vaccination campaign has paid off: 
U.S. virus cases are at their lowest rate since September, deaths are at their 
lowest point since last April and the test positivity rate is at the lowest 
point since the pandemic began.

   Walensky said the long-awaited change is thanks to the millions of people 
who have gotten vaccinated and is based on the latest science about how well 
those shots are working.

   "Anyone who is fully vaccinated can participate in indoor and outdoor 
activities -- large or small -- without wearing a mask or physically 
distancing," Walensky said. "If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing 
the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic."

   The new guidance is likely to open the door to confusion, since there is no 
surefire way for businesses or others to distinguish between those who are 
fully vaccinated and those who are not.

   "Millions of Americans are doing the right thing and getting vaccinated, but 
essential workers are still forced to play mask police for shoppers who are 
unvaccinated and refuse to follow local COVID safety measures," said Marc 
Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International 
Union. "Are they now supposed to become the vaccination police?"

   Walensky and Biden said people who are not fully vaccinated should continue 
to wear masks indoors.

   "We've gotten this far -- please protect yourself until you get to the 
finish line," Biden said, noting that most Americans under 65 are not yet fully 
vaccinated. He said the government was not going to enforce the mask wearing 
guidance on those not yet fully vaccinated.

   "We're not going to go out and arrest people," added Biden, who said he 
believes the American people want to take care of their neighbors. "If you 
haven't been vaccinated, wear your mask for your own protection and the 
protection of the people who also have not been vaccinated yet."

   On Capitol Hill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she is not changing the 
rules requiring masks on the House floor.

   "No," Pelosi told CNN. "Are they all vaccinated?"

   Recent estimates have put the percentage of unvaccinated lawmakers in the 
House at 25%.

   That ambiguity over who is and isn't vaccinated led Lawrence Gostin, a 
public health law expert at Georgetown University, to declare the CDC guidance 
"confusing and contradictory."

   "The public will not feel comfortable in a crowded indoor space if they are 
unsure if the maskless person standing next to them is or is not vaccinated," 
he said.

   The announcement came as many states and communities have already been 
lifting mask mandates amid improving virus numbers and as more Americans have 
been shedding face coverings after getting shots.

   Dan Witte, a 67-year-old musician from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, stopped 
wearing a mask after receiving the vaccine two months ago and recently rejoined 
his band playing gigs at crowded bars and weddings. He was encouraged by the 
CDC's new guidance, but said it just confirmed his trust that the vaccines 
offered protection from spreading infections.

   "I went right from being hypervigilant for almost a year to being right in 
the crowd without a mask," Witte said.

   To date more than 154 million Americans, nearly 47% of the population, have 
received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, and nearly 119 million are 
fully vaccinated. The rate of new vaccinations has slowed in recent weeks, but 
with the authorization Wednesday of the Pfizer shot for children ages 12 to 15, 
a new burst of doses is expected in the coming days.

   "All of us, let's be patient, be patient with one another," Biden said, 
acknowledging some Americans might be hesitant about removing their masks after 
more than a year of living in a pandemic that has killed more than 584,000 
people in the U.S. and more than 3.3 million people worldwide.

   The CDC's announcement that Americans could begin to shed one of the most 
visible symbols of the pandemic stood in stark contrast to other nations, with 
much of the world still struggling to contain the virus amid global disparities 
in vaccinations.

   Just two weeks ago, the CDC recommended that fully vaccinated people 
continue to wear masks indoors in all settings and outdoors in large crowds.

   Walensky said that evidence from the U.S. and Israel shows the vaccines are 
as strongly protective in real world use as they were in earlier studies and 
that so far they continue to work even though some worrying mutated versions of 
the virus are spreading.

   The more people continue to get vaccinated, the faster infections will drop 
-- and the harder it will be for the virus to mutate enough to escape vaccines, 
she stressed, urging everyone 12 and older who is not yet vaccinated to sign up.

   And while some people still get COVID-19 despite being vaccinated, Walensky 
said, that's rare. She cited evidence that those infections tend to be milder, 
shorter and harder to spread to others. If people who are vaccinated do develop 
COVID-19 symptoms, they should immediately put their mask back on and get 
tested, she said.

   There are some caveats. Walensky encouraged people who have weak immune 
systems, such as from organ transplants or cancer treatment, to talk with their 
doctors before shedding their masks. That's because of continued uncertainty 
about whether the vaccines can rev up a weakened immune system as well as they 
do normal, healthy ones.

   The new guidance had an immediate effect at the White House, which has taken 
a cautious approach to easing virus restrictions. Staffers were informed that 
masks are no longer required for people who are fully vaccinated.

   First lady Jill Biden, who was traveling in West Virginia, told reporters 
that "we feel naked" as she and her party removed their face coverings. Then 
she paused. "I didn't mean it that way!"

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