Will you or won’t you take off your mask? The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidelines on May 13 that fully vaccinated people can take off their masks in nearly all settings.
Not so fast. Many people are deciding for themselves about which settings in which they feel comfortable shedding them. What if you have young children at home? What if you have an underlying medical condition that results in your being immunocompromised? What if you’re just not comfortable doing this yet? Are there situations where you would still double-mask?
We turned to CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen to ask for her advice. Wen is an emergency physician and visiting professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health. She’s also the author of the forthcoming book “Lifelines: A Doctor’s Journey in the Fight for Public Health.”
CNN: Can you explain the new CDC guidelines around masking?
Dr. Leana Wen: The new CDC guidelines say that if you’re fully vaccinated — meaning it’s been two weeks since your second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine, or since your one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine — you don’t need to be wearing a mask in most settings.
There are some exceptions: You still have to wear a mask on planes, trains, hospitals, nursing homes and if the business requires it. The guidelines also defer to local and state laws, so there’s going to be some variation. My state of Maryland has removed indoor mask mandates, but where I live in Baltimore, we still have these mandates in place.
To be clear, these guidelines do not apply to people who are not vaccinated. They should still have their masks on. That guidance is to protect themselves, as those not vaccinated are still at high risk for contracting Covid-19. It’s also to protect others around them, especially those who are also not vaccinated and therefore at risk.
CNN: If you’re vaccinated, do you have to take off your mask?
Wen: No. Just because you can now, this doesn’t mean that you have to. It’s a personal decision, and everyone needs to figure out what’s best for them.
There are some vaccinated people who should still take precautions and keep their masks on. This is particularly true for those with severe immunosuppression. If you are a transplant patient on immunosuppression medications or have cancer and are on chemotherapy, you should still keep your mask on and keep distancing in public places where people around you could be unvaccinated and unmasked.
People with other forms of immunosuppression should check with their doctor for advice. For example, patients on dialysis or who have lupus or rheumatoid arthritis and are on milder immunosuppressant medications may also need to take extra precautions.
Others may be generally healthy, but still want to take extra precautions. That’s OK. You should proceed at your own pace. Vaccination protects you very well from contracting Covid-19 and spreading it to others, but it’s not 100%. If the small possibility is something that worries you, you could continue to wear masks in higher-risk settings.
CNN: How do you think through where you go based on risk? For example, what about going to the grocery store versus a restaurant or gym?
Wen: Anything outdoors is going to be safer than the equivalent activity indoors. If you’re vaccinated, and you’re outdoors, it’s going to be very safe. If you are thinking of taking your mask off around others, I think this is the first area to do this. When you’re out for a walk or having a picnic in the park, you can take off your mask.
Another very safe environment is around others you know are fully vaccinated. A dinner with vaccinated friends, or sharing a workspace with others who you also trust to be vaccinated, are good places to shed your mask and enjoy others’ company the way that you did pre-pandemic.
If there is a business that is verifying vaccination in some way—for example, some gyms are doing this, and sports venues — that is also safer than if vaccination status is not checked.