And with that, the masks are off. Mostly.


President Biden claps with Vice President Kamala Harris on Thursday in the White House Rose Garden, after speaking on updated guidance on mask mandates and COVID-19 response. Evan Vucci/Associated Press

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Thursday its recommendation that fully vaccinated people no longer be required to wear masks indoors in most cases, and outdoors at all. The latest move aligns CDC recommendations with what we know about how the virus spreads.

That wasn’t always the case. Just two weeks ago, the Biden administration said that the fully vaccinated should continue to wear masks indoors in all settings and outdoors in large crowds, just one case where the CDC was being overcautious – to the detriment of restoring normalcy and the confidence of Americans in public health.

Maine Sen. Susan Collins pointed to a number of these instances at a Senate Health Committee meeting this week. In one case, the Biden administration changed language on school reopenings not based on science but on the lobbying of a teachers’ union. In another, first reported in The New York Times, the administration greatly exaggerated the threat of COVID transmission outdoors.

It is a reminder of the initial guidance concerning masks and how that has harmed the perception of the CDC.

Early on, health officials said masks were unnecessary. In issuing that guidance, the CDC was trying to protect the supply of high-grade masks, which were scarce and needed gravely in health care settings. They believed at the time that the virus was likely spread through surface contact and that simple cloth face-coverings wouldn’t help much.


By the time it was clear that masks were the most effective deterrent against transmission, a lot of the damage was done. People could now point to the initial guidance as reason not to trust the CDC. 

Such a mistake was understandable then. But health officials continue to struggle to communicate effectively how Americans should act during the pandemic.

It’s good that the Biden administration changed its guidance for fully vaccinated Americans. But a correction should not have been necessary. The original guidance should never have been issued, and now the CDC has once again left people confused.

That shouldn’t happen after all we’ve learned in the last year. We know that schools can operate safely, and that students are at very little risk from COVID. We know that masks work well indoors but don’t have much of an effect outdoors, where very little transmissions occurs, if any. We know that the vaccines have proved highly effective.

We’ll learn more in the coming months, and as we do the CDC should likewise adjust its guidance. There are still reasons to be cautious around COVID, but with every new thing we learn, it becomes easier to set guidance that allows people to enjoy more of their lives without endangering public health. It becomes easier to protect the public without unnecessarily confusing them.

Faced with an unknown virus last year, officials had every reason to be overcautious. Now that we know so much more, and have vaccines that are effective and available, those reasons are falling away one by one. The CDC’s guidance should reflect that reality.

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