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Answers To Your CDC Mask Guidance Confusion

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its advice to the public around who should wear a mask and when. But despite lots of interviews by lots of officials, it's confusing. So we're going to see if NPR health reporter Pien Huang, who's been reporting all this, can help us out. Pien, help.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: (Laughter) Sure. Happy to be here.

MARTIN: So what exactly did the CDC say?

HUANG: Well, a few weeks ago, the CDC said it's safe to be outside without a mask. And now they're saying if you're fully vaccinated, you're safe inside without a mask as well.

MARTIN: Are we sure this is safe?

HUANG: Well, I know it feels strange to people who are used to masks. I mean, that fabric covering has been like a safety blanket on your face, protecting you from people breathing in it. But remember; there are two basic reasons to wear a mask. No. 1, it catches your germs so they don't spray out and infect people. And two, it forms a barrier so you're less likely to breathe in virus from the air.

Now, the CDC says that based on the millions of people who have been vaccinated, the shots are working just as well in the real world as they did in studies. So if you're fully vaccinated, your immune system is protecting you from COVID. If you breathe it in, your body can fight it off. And you're probably also not breathing out infectious clouds of it. So that's why the CDC is saying that it's safe for fully vaccinated people to not wear masks. But whether people feel safe is another question.

MARTIN: Right, because the guidance applies specifically to fully vaccinated people. But how can you know who is fully vaccinated and who is not, I mean, as an individual or even as a business?

HUANG: Yeah. I mean, right now, less than half the U.S. population is fully vaccinated. So it really depends on where you are. But overall, according to the guidance, that means at least one out of every two people should still be masking indoors. CDC director Rochelle Walensky says if unvaccinated people take their masks off, they're taking a risk.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROCHELLE WALENSKY: The science demonstrates that if you are fully vaccinated, you are protected. It is the people who are not fully vaccinated in those settings who might not be wearing a mask who are not protected. And it is those people that we are encouraging to get vaccinated and to wear a mask and to physically distance.

HUANG: Her message is that if you're fully vaccinated, it shouldn't matter whether the people around you are. Your immune system is protecting you. Now, the situation is new and evolving. But it does seem like a lot of places will go with the honor system. And some people say that's not really fair to people who haven't been able to get vaccinated yet or who might want to take extra precautions because they live with people who are vulnerable or not able to get vaccinated. You know, it kind of shifts the burden of risk from society, in which we're all working together to protect each other, to individuals with each person protecting themselves.

MARTIN: You know, I have to say that kids, young kids are in that category of those who have not been able to get vaccinated yet. So what should people be doing if they have young kids?

HUANG: Well, yesterday, the CDC said schools should keep up with masking and physical distancing at least through the end of the school year. And for parents, Dr. Celine Gounder - she's an infectious disease specialist - she says it depends on your sense of risk and where you live.

CELINE GOUNDER: If the rates of community transmission where you live are very low, if almost everybody in your community that you're around is vaccinated, you know, your kids are probably OK.

HUANG: But if you're in a place where few people are vaccinated and nobody's masking, you might not want to take your kid to crowded public places yet.

MARTIN: So, Pien, before we let you go, there seems to have been a lot of criticism of this latest guidance. Some people think it's just too confusing. Some people feel it's political. Is there a main criticism that you've heard?

HUANG: Well, one of the big ones I've heard is that it's lacking context. I mean, sure, it says vaccinated individuals are protected. But Gounder says that whether a state or community lifts their mask mandate should maybe be tied to high rates of vaccination and low case numbers. The CDC says that they're going to be making more updates to mask guidance in the next few weeks.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Pien Huang. Pien, thank you.

HUANG: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF FUTURE SONG, "MASK OFF") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.