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Public health experts support CDC guidance on vaccinated people

Pharmacist Andrea Glennon prepared doses of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine at the Tufts Medical Center COVID-19 Vaccination Clinic at the Courtyard Marriott Hotel in Boston.
Pharmacist Andrea Glennon prepared doses of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine at the Tufts Medical Center COVID-19 Vaccination Clinic at the Courtyard Marriott Hotel in Boston.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Public health specialists on Monday voiced support for new guidelines from the CDC indicating that people fully-vaccinated against COVID-19 can gather with other vaccinated people indoors without wearing a mask or distancing.

The recommendations also say vaccinated people can mix with people considered at low-risk for severe disease; think vaccinated grandparents visiting healthy children and grandchildren.

“I think what the CDC has done is, they’re following the evidence,” said Dr. Joshua Barocas, an infectious disease physician at Boston Medical Center who also teaches at the BU School of Medicine, in a phone interview.

Barocas said the notion that fully vaccinated people can now spend time with one another indoors “is consistent with the evidence,” which shows the vaccine can reduce the risk of transmission by a person who’s vaccinated.

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“This is a huge step in our return to normalcy,” Barocas said, adding that the guidelines could also serve as “a potential incentive” for eligible people to get vaccinated, even if they’ve been reluctant to date.

Dr. Paul Sax, clinical director of the infectious diseases division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said in a separate interview that the new guidelines are “appropriate” and based on data from clinical studies. The CDC, he said, isn’t suggesting Americans “should go to crowded bars and restaurants,” but the agency is highlighting a path forward for people who’ve dealt with prolonged stretches of isolation during the pandemic.

“That’s a very positive message,” he said of the guidelines, which he described as “a summation of the science as we understand it now.”

Experts also sounded off on social media Monday.

“CDC totally gets it right,” tweeted Dr. Ashish K. Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health and a leading authority on pandemic response. “Vaccinated people can hang with other vaccinated people. Vaccinated grandparents can hug unvaccinated grandkids* *Broader public health measures should remain for now because lots of high risk folks are not yet vaccinated.”

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Others, however, said more clarification is needed.

“They should clarify if these guidelines apply to workplaces,” tweeted Dr. Ameet Kini, a professor of pathology at Loyola University Chicago Health Sciences Division’s Stritch School of Medicine.

Dr. Krutika Kuppalli, an infectious disease expert who has testifed repeatedly on the COVID-19 pandemic before Congress, tweeted that she hoped the new guidelines will coax eligible people who have been weary of the vaccine to get their first dose.

“Loving the new @CDCgov guidelines for fully vaccinated people against #COVID19,” Kuppalli tweeted. “Perhaps this change in guidance from the @CDCgov will help convince people who are on the fence about getting the #COVID19Vaccination to get #vaccinated. The thought of spending time with loved ones and friends indoors and unmasked sounds wonderful!”

Dr. Bertha Hidalgo, a genetic epidemiologist at the School of Public Health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, was on a similar wavelength Monday morning after the guidelines dropped.

“Completely agree,” Hidalgo tweeted in response to Kuppalli. “After a year of not having guests indoors, I’m super excited about this.”

Hidalgo also asked Kuppalli in the thread about gatherings with kids from different households.

“I might still wait on mixing kids, particularly indoors,” Kuppalli tweeted. “Hoping that we will have results on the vaccine trials in them soon.”

Dr. David Rosman, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, said in a statement that residents should proceed with caution, the new guidelines notwithstanding.

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“The new CDC guidelines are an important step in a positive direction, but as we take these steps - steps we all want to take - we must take them with extreme caution,” Rosman said. “It is important to appreciate that these thoughtful and data-based guidelines do not represent a care-free return to life as we knew it a year ago, even for those who are fully vaccinated.”

He added that the guidelines “represent a remarkable accomplishment for science and medicine, as mitigation measures, coupled with the rollout of three safe and effective vaccines and a public eager to be vaccinated, have helped us make progress, but the virus remains a formidable and deadly foe.”

Rosman also vouched for the safety of the shots.

“We know the three vaccines work, we know they are safe, and we know that we must continue efforts to ensure that our most vulnerable and most likely to face severe illness, hospitalization and death - disproportionately affected communities of color, the sick, the elderly and essential workers - are able to receive vaccines efficiently and equitably from the health care provider and health care setting of their choosing,” Rosman said.

Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious diseases physician at the University of California, San Francisco, tweeted Monday that she felt the new guidelines may even be too cautious.

“Well, CDC released their guidelines saying vaccinated people can gather indoors without masks/distancing but a lot of caveats,” Gandhi wrote. “So much evidence now that vaccines reduce transmission from real-world, that think these are overly-cautious, but it’s a start!”

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Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC director, said in a statement Monday that officials know the public wants to get back to normal.

“We know that people want to get vaccinated so they can get back to doing the things they enjoy with the people they love,” Walensky said. “There are some activities that fully vaccinated people can begin to resume now in their own homes. Everyone – even those who are vaccinated – should continue with all mitigation strategies when in public settings. As the science evolves and more people get vaccinated, we will continue to provide more guidance to help fully vaccinated people safely resume more activities.”

Some 90.4 million total COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered nationwide, according to the CDC website, which also said early Monday afternoon that the virus has killed 522,973 Americans and infected about 28.7 million people in the country since the start of the pandemic.

In Massachusetts, where more than 16,000 residents have died from the virus, the state eclipsed the 2 million dose mark last week, Governor Charlie Baker tweeted Friday.

“As of today, Massachusetts has administered over 2 million doses of the #COVID19MA vaccine,” Baker tweeted. “The Commonwealth remains a national leader in first doses per capita, and we look forward to continuing to vaccinate more residents as supply begins to increase throughout the spring.”

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Massachusetts’s vaccine rollout has been plagued by issues with the website for booking appointments, as well as a crush of eligible residents competing for a limited supply of doses made available by the federal government.

Dr. Abraar Karan, a physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, noted Monday that the CDC, with the new guidelines, still cautions against larger maskless gatherings.

“The CDC recommends against maskless medium or larger gatherings but don’t give absolute numbers on this,” Karan tweeted. “Helpful to think in terms of rate of community spread, number of people, duration of time, ventilation indoors, and distancing.”

He also stressed that precautions must still be taken in public to prevent community transmission of the virus.

Karan tweeted that while the CDC acknowledges “that other activities, like gyms & restaurants, are lower risk for vaccinated people, with high rates of community #covid19 transmission, precautions still must be taken in these settings until we have reached much higher levels of vaccination.”

The doctor also urged people to get vaccinated, calling it a vital tool in the ongoing battle against the deadly pandemic, and to spread the word about the safety and effectiveness of the shot.

“Get vaccinated!” Karan tweeted. “Vaccines are the most important tool we have right now. Efforts should be focused on ramping up our vaccine distribution even further. If you have been [vaccinated] please speak to your close circles if anyone is hesitant so they can know it’s safe.”

Another expert, Dr. Nahid Bhadelia, who teaches at the Boston University School of Medicine, tweeted Monday that she felt the CDC had issued “reasonable” new guidelines. She also praised CDC officials for formulating the protocols.

“I personally think these are reasonable and they take into account both new data regarding reduced transmission risk after vaccination while balancing continued community risk given how many of us still unvaccinated and how much community transmission there still is,” Bhadelia tweeted.

She added that it’s not easy “to actively and incrementally move public health policy for an entire HUGE nation in the middle of a fast moving pandemic with evolving science. Bravo @CDCgov @CDCDirector.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.


Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.