CDC guidelines for COVID-19 vaccinated population backed by top health experts

Experts say everyone should wear masks in high risk, public settings regardless of vaccination status

Several top health experts are touting new federal guidelines on practices considered safe for fully vaccinated populations against COVID-19, while underscoring the importance of masking up in high risk and public settings.

The highly anticipated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued this week greenlighted unmasked indoor gatherings among fully vaccinated individuals, and also suggested fully vaccinated people mingling indoors with unvaccinated people at low-risk for severe COVID-19 poses low risk, among other recommendations. However, the CDC advised everyone should avoid larger indoor gatherings and mask up in public and high-risk settings regardless of vaccination status.

"This guidance is really thoughtful," Dr. Anne Liu, infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care, wrote to Fox News. "It balances removing some precautions under low risk conditions while maintaining them in high risk and public situations."

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Liu said the guidance on mask use in particular was reasonable given persistent virus spread in communities, and given the majority of the country's population has yet to roll their sleeves and receive a vaccine. According to data compiled by the CDC, approximately 90% of the U.S. population is not yet fully vaccinated.

Dr. Andrea Cox, professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, explained that not everyone responds to the vaccine in the same way, so the jabs cannot completely eliminate the risk of symptomatic infection or transmission. 

"It is still important to wear a mask to protect yourself and others after vaccination," Cox wrote in an emailed statement. "It is especially important not to interact with others not wearing a mask, even in small groups, if they are unvaccinated and at risk of severe infection. Because we do not know that about people in large public settings, wearing a mask when out is safest."

On the other hand, Fox News medical contributor Dr. Marc Siegel argues the guidance is still too stringent given fully vaccinated individuals’ low risk of transmitting or contracting the virus.

Separately, the guidance comes as public health officials continue to discover cases of variants circulating in the U.S., some of which are believed to be more contagious and possibly even more virulent than the original strain, though unknowns over impact on vaccine efficacy remain. 

"I wonder if the CDC will also incorporate guidance on whether to behave differently around unvaccinated people at high risk for COVID exposure if we start to see more spread of variants that vaccines block less effectively," Liu wrote.

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While the agency’s travel-related COVID-19 guidance remains unchanged, Dr. Jessica Justman, associate professor of medicine in epidemiology at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, told Fox News she anticipates the CDC will adjust the guidance on travel and workplace settings "in the coming weeks."

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, CDC director, said during a White House briefing Monday that "many of our variants [that] have emerged are from international places and we know that the travel corridor is a place where people are mixing a lot. We are really trying to restrain travel at this current period of time and we’re hopeful that our next set of guidance will have more science around what vaccinated people can do, perhaps travel being among them."

Finally, on a separate note, the new guidelines consider close, indoor gatherings between fully vaccinated persons (for example, some grandparents) and a single household of unmasked, unvaccinated family members at low-risk for severe disease as a safe, "low risk" activity.

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"This grandparent example will be warmly received by many, especially since so many older adults bore the brunt of the pandemic over the past year," Justman wrote. "Hopefully these new guidelines will encourage those who are uncertain to go ahead and get vaccinated." 

Data compiled by the CDC on over 380,000 COVID-19-related deaths for which age was available pins those aged 85 and over with the highest percentage of deaths (32%), and mortality declines by age group; those 75-84 accounted for about 28% of deaths, the 65-74 age group had 21% of deaths and those aged 50-64 had 15% of the reported deaths, while each age group under 49 accounted for less than 3% of deaths, respectively.