Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Sunday that people have to be honest with themselves when deciding whether to wear a mask after the agency lifted masking requirements for vaccinated people.
The CDC last week updated its guidance for people fully vaccinated against Covid-19 to say they generally do not need to wear a mask, except in certain circumstances. The updated guidance also says people still need to wear masks if they’re unvaccinated, including people younger than 12.
“I think that people who were not inclined to wear a mask were not inclined to wear a mask before Thursday,” Walensky told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union” when asked if she trusted that people would wear a mask if they were unvaccinated.
The timing of the update guidance from the CDC had caught some off guard and prompted a confusing rush in states to update their rules. Some states, including California, are ending their mask mandates as they prepare to fully reopen.
“What we’re really asking in those settings, is to say, in terms of the honor system, people have to be honest with themselves,” Walensky said. “You’re protected if you’re vaccinated, you’re not if you’re not vaccinated.”
White House officials had been anticipating the CDC would soon make changes, but many believed it would take the agency until later this month to decide on the new recommendations.
Walensky, who during a Senate hearing last week cautioned Americans to continue measures such as masking and handwashing, defended the agency’s decision to update its mask guidance and said it was not a result of political pressure.
“It certainly would’ve been easier if the science had evolved a week earlier, and I didn’t have to go to Congress making those statements but I’m delivering the science as the science is delivered to the medical journals and, you know, it evolved over this last week,” she told Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday.” “The cases came down over this last two weeks and so I delivered it as soon as I can when we have that information available.”
Everyone taking their masks off will be a slow process, she told Bash on Sunday, as not all communities are the same – with some having high levels of vaccinations and others still showing high case rates.
“I want to convey that we are not saying that everybody has to take off their mask if they’re vaccinated,” Walensky said. “It’s been 16 months that we’ve been telling people to mask and this is going to be a slow process.”
The CDC director said in an interview on ABC’s “This Week” that the agency is asking people to take their health into their own hands.
“We are asking people to take their health into their own hands, to get vaccinated, and if they don’t, then they continue to be at risk. For the unvaccinated, our policy has not changed,” she said. “We were going to get to a place in this pandemic where vaccinated people were going to be able to take off their mask. We’re lucky to be there with the science that we have, and now we have to take this foundational step that is completely based in science and understand what it means as we open the entire country.”
On Saturday, the CDC announced schools should continue masking and using other coronavirus prevention strategies for at least the rest of the 2020-2021 school year because most students won’t be fully vaccinated by the end of the year. The US Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization to Pfizer/BioNTech’s two-dose coronavirus vaccine for adolescents ages 12 to 15 last week, but children under 12 aren’t yet eligible to receive a Covid-19 vaccine in the United States.
Walensky told Bash the CDC will not be changing its guidance for the end of the school year but said the CDC is currently working to update its summer camp Covid-19 guidance, which still recommends social distancing and masking at all times, including when playing outdoor sports, with exceptions for things like eating and swimming.
“Most kids will not be vaccinated or fully vaccinated before the end of this year and we’re going to work on updating our school guidance,” Walensky said. “So much evolved just in this week, both with our guidance – with unmask if you’re vaccinated – as well as the eligibility of vaccination for 12 to 15 year olds. So yes, we do have to rapidly update our camp guidance and we’re working on that right now.”
CNN’s Katia Hetter, Lauren Mascarenhas and Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.