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CDC director defends new mask guidance, says decision is based in science

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky testifies during a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing to examine an update from Federal officials on efforts to combat COVID-19 on Tuesday on Capitol Hill, in Washington.Greg Nash/Associated Press

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on Sunday defended last week’s decision to reverse mask-wearing guidelines for the country, stating that new data allows for vaccinated people to not wear masks.

“We were pretty clear when we lifted it that the science right now tells us that it is safe for vaccinated people to take off their masks,” Walensky said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” She appeared on four Sunday talk shows to talk about the nationwide decision.

As a result of guidelines set by the CDC Thursday, fully vaccinated people can stop wearing their masks outdoors, in most indoor settings — barring crowded areas — as well as ease on social distancing. Masks are still recommended for those who are not vaccinated and those under the age of 12.


“We also need to say that this is not permission for widespread removal of masks,” Walensky said on ABC’s “This Week,” highlighting how those who are not vaccinated are not protected.

“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,” she added. More than one-third of people in the United States are vaccinated, including over 45 percent of adults, she said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

The abruptness of the new guidance has left the public wondering how this happened, especially after Walensky appeared in front of Congress earlier in the week to defend the CDC’s strict policy on widespread masking.

When asked about this on “Fox News Sunday,” Walensky said the decision was driven by available information rather than public pressure.

“I can tell you it certainly would have been easier if the science had evolved a week earlier and I didn’t have to go to Congress making those statements,” she said. “But I’m delivering the science as the science is delivered to the medical journals.”


The decision has also left many grocery stores and businesses in a scramble to make a decision on mask mandates. Companies like Trader Joe’s and Walmart have already announced that fully vaccinated customers will no longer need to wear masks, but other businesses are stuck wondering what position they are in in terms of enforcing mask policies, and if the government is depending on them to do so.

They will instead have to rely on an honor system, as more states continue to ease on mask restrictions. How this will play out is still up in the air, as questions are raised on how businesses could determine who is and who isn’t vaccinated.

“I would imagine within a period of just a couple of weeks, you’re going to start to see significant clarification of some of the actually understandable and reasonable questions that people are asking,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

Walensky noted that the “people who were not inclined to wear a mask were not inclined to wear a mask before Thursday.”

“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 on “State of the Union.” “You’re protected if you’re vaccinated, you’re not if you’re not vaccinated.”


Material from the Globe’s wire services was used in this report.

Breanne Kovatch can be reached at breanne.kovatch@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @breannekovatch.