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Health & Science

2 Weeks After Your Last Vaccine Dose, You Can Shed Your Mask

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Life is getting a little bit more normal these days. Vaccinated people, whether they are indoors or outdoors, in small groups or in crowds, no longer have to wear masks. That is according to new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And all of this comes less than 24 hours after the agency signed off on the use of the Pfizer vaccine for adolescents ages 12 through 15. We're going to talk about some of this now with the director of the CDC, Dr. Rochelle Walensky.

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ROCHELLE WALENSKY: Thanks so much, Ailsa. Thanks for having me.

CHANG: Thanks for being with us. Well, let's start with this guidance about vaccinated people no longer needing to wear masks anywhere, except on buses, trains and airports and stations and in health care settings. I want to ask you - a little more than two weeks ago, you put out what many felt was overly cautious guidance. What changed between now and then? - because this guidance today feels a little bit like an about face, I have to say.

WALENSKY: So I think that there are several things that we have been following as we think about updating our guidance. The first is in the last two weeks, our cases are down in this country by about a third. The second is we now really do have an opportunity across this country for anyone who wants a vaccine to get it. We expanded that opportunity yesterday for 12- to 15-year-olds, which made 17 million more people eligible for a vaccine. We don't have vaccine shortages. We have opportunities for people to find where they can get vaccinated. And really, everybody who wants a vaccine at this point has access to one. I might just parenthetically say, if you don't know where to get a vaccine, you can text GETVAX and put in your zip code - 438829. And you can find all the vaccine near you.

CHANG: OK.

WALENSKY: But then thirdly is there has been evolving science. So really, over the last several weeks and even some studies released in the last week or so have demonstrated important things related to vaccination. One is that the vaccine is working in the public in the same way it worked in the clinical trials, that the effectiveness in real-world studies is very similar, over 90%, as it was in the clinical trials. And so that's really terrific news.

The second is that it's working against the variants that we have circulating in this country. So we saw that in the lab, but we have also seen it in now studies that were published just this past week in the New England Journal, that the vaccines are working against the B.1.1.7 variant, the B.1.351 variant. And then thirdly, there's emerging data that has demonstrated that if you are vaccinated, you generally don't get asymptomatic infection and generally cannot transmit to other people. Certainly, there are exceptions for all of these. But for the most part, the vaccine is - once you're vaccinated, you can't transmit to others.

CHANG: OK.

WALENSKY: And so all of that science, in conjunction with all of the epidemiologic data that we have, really says now is the moment.

CHANG: OK. About that science, why the carve-out for public transit? Like, why is public transit less safe than, say, a mall or a movie theater?

WALENSKY: Yeah, I think it's really important to recognize that this was data that we put out for what vaccinated people can do. And then what we really need to do now as an agency is calm all of our guidance not just for travel but for schools and for camps and for child care centers and for all of the guidance that we have out there and apply the guidance that we have for individuals - vaccinated individuals to that. And that is going to be the work of the weeks ahead that we have in the agency. And importantly, also to note, that the travel guidance is not just CDC's guidance. It's a policy, and it's an interagency policy. So we have to collaborate with other agencies to work through what might change in that policy.

CHANG: OK. But just to be clear, these vaccines, as you just said, are not 100% effective in preventing the spread of the virus. There's data that shows that they are above 90% effective, but that's still not complete protection, right? So just to be precise here, it still isn't totally safe for people who've been vaccinated to go without masks. Is that correct?

WALENSKY: So, you know, the emerging data we see for the most part there, it's - we've seen 90%. Many studies have been up to 97%. But what we also are seeing is in those people who are getting infected, for the most part, about a third of them are having asymptomatic infection. Many of them are having - even if they have symptoms, they're mild symptoms. So really - and that is, in fact, what we saw in the trials as well, that these vaccines were really 100% effective in preventing hospitalizations and deaths.

CHANG: What about someone with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which is a little less effective than the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines? Can someone who got the J&J vaccine safely go without a mask now?

WALENSKY: So our guidance is really for anybody who is vaccinated with any of the vaccines.

CHANG: OK.

WALENSKY: Certainly, the Johnson & Johnson data from the clinical trials also showed 100% efficacy in severe disease, hospitalization and death.

CHANG: OK. So just to be clear again, if I am vaccinated, am I safe heading inside a grocery store without a mask, even though there may be some nonvaccinated people inside that store who may or may not be wearing masks? That is now safe.

WALENSKY: That is now safe. That is exactly what our guidance is saying.

CHANG: OK.

WALENSKY: And what I also want to say is - you know, we have been doing this for 15 months at this point. And not everybody's going to want to shed their mask immediately. This is behaviors that have been in our brain for the last 15 months. It's going to feel a little bit uncomfortable if anybody took off their masks in the last two weeks...

CHANG: Sure (laughter).

WALENSKY: ...While they were going outside.

CHANG: Feels like a social faux pas now, yeah.

WALENSKY: (Laughter) Exactly, exactly. So I think it's going to take us a little bit of time to readjust. But that is exactly what our guidance is saying right now.

CHANG: Let me ask you another thing. There's another aspect to this new mask guidance that I don't get. It says that vaccinated people can resume activities without wearing masks or physically distancing, except when required by federal, state, local, tribal or territorial laws, rules and regulations. That's what I don't understand. If the CDC says masks are not necessary, why are those rules and regulations even relevant?

WALENSKY: Well, I think we need to sort of also understand that many of these policies are going to be held at the jurisdictional level, at the locality level. And, in fact, I think it's really important for people to understand that if you are not vaccinated, you remain at risk unless you get vaccinated or continue to wear your mask. I would say now is the time to get vaccinated. But importantly, I think it's really important to understand at a jurisdictional level, how is your jurisdiction doing? The whole country is not a homogeneous space.

CHANG: Right.

WALENSKY: So we have some jurisdictions that have higher levels of cases. We have some jurisdictions that have lower levels of vaccine administration. And so it may very well be that the jurisdictions want to look at how - at sort of the temperature of how they're doing before they lift some of these mandates.

CHANG: Dr. Rochelle Walensky is the director of the CDC.

Thank you very much for joining our show today.

WALENSKY: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.