When federal health officials said Thursday that fully vaccinated Americans would no longer have to wear masks in most locations, it came as a surprise to many in the public health sector. It was also in stark contrast to the views of a large majority of epidemiologists surveyed by the New York Times over the past two weeks.
In the informal poll, 80 percent said Americans were required to wear masks in indoor public spaces for at least another year. Only 5 percent said that people will no longer have to wear masks indoors by summer.
In large outdoor crowds, such as at a concert or protest, 88 percent of epidemiologists said it was necessary even for fully vaccinated people to wear masks.
“Unless vaccination rates rise to 80 or 90 percent in the next few months, we should wear masks in large indoor public spaces,” said Vivian Towe, program director at the Institute for Patient-Centered Results.
Responses came from 723 epidemiologists submitted between April 28 and May 10 before the Centers’ new guidelines for Disease Control and Prevention. The survey asked epidemiologists if they were in different sized groups outdoors and indoors with people whose vaccination status was unknown. The situations were in line with the new guidelines governing behavior in public places regardless of their size, where it is impossible to know the vaccination status of others.
Federal health officials have already said vaccinated people can be inside with other vaccinated people, and epidemiologists have largely agreed. However, the CDC’s new guidelines state that masks are no longer required for fully vaccinated individuals, regardless of the size of the congregation and whether they are indoors or outdoors, except in certain situations, such as in a doctor’s office or on public transit.
Epidemiologists are broadly very cautious about Covid-19 as they are trained to understand risks and prevent the spread of infectious diseases. Nearly three-quarters identified themselves as risk averse, and unlike many Americans, they’ve likely been able to work from home over the past year. But they are also trained as many of the academics at the CDC who developed the new policy, and about a third of those surveyed work in government, mostly at the state level.
They admitted that many Americans no longer want to wear masks – and that many have already stopped.
Wearing masks “will be a necessity, which is a very different question from the duration,” said Sophia K., epidemiologist at the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council. “I assume that most people will refuse to wear masks in public by the end of 2021, regardless of whether there is still a pandemic or not.”
Many epidemiologists echoed the CDC by saying that people who were fully vaccinated could congregate without taking precautions. However, the CDC went even further than the epidemiologists by giving vaccinated individuals OK to end masking in groups with an unknown number of unvaccinated individuals.
May 14, 2021 at 8:16 p.m. ET
“Either you trust the vaccine or you don’t,” said Kristin Harrington, Ph.D. Student at Emory. “And if we trust the vaccine, it means that there is no limit to the number of people who can get vaccinated.”
Others recognized that political decisions are based on many goals, such as stimulating the economy and encouraging people to get vaccinated.
Most said, however, that wearing masks was still necessary for the time being as the number of Americans vaccinated has not yet reached a level that scientists believe is necessary to significantly slow the spread of the virus. By then, there are too many chances that vaccines that aren’t 100 percent effective will fail, they said.
“Crowded indoor and outdoor conditions require a mask until the community in Covid is much lower,” said Luther-King Fasehun, a doctor and doctor of epidemiology. Student at Temple University.
Sally Picciotto, an epidemiologist at the University of California at Berkeley, said the decision to stop wearing masks indoors was dependent on more people rolling up their sleeves to get the shot.
Respondents also said masks are important in protecting people at high risk and those who cannot be vaccinated, such as children or people with underlying health conditions, while the virus is still spreading.
“Until community transmission is lower, wearing masks will protect the entire community and the rest of the people in the room,” said Julia Raifman, an assistant including children, immunocompromised individuals, and Black and Latino communities affected by Covid- 19 more badly hit were professor of public health at Boston University.
A quarter of epidemiologists in the survey said that people would need to continue wearing masks indefinitely in certain settings, and some said they wanted to continue wearing them in places like airplanes or concert halls, or during the winter virus season.
“Heck, I can now wear a mask for any flu season,” said Allison Stewart, the senior epidemiologist for Williamson County and the Cities Health District in Texas. “Sure, it was nice not to have been sick for over a year.”
Alana Cilwick, epidemiologist for the Colorado Department of Public Health, said, “I plan to wear a mask indoors for the foreseeable future as the vaccine delay is great, especially in higher risk environments like the gym or on an airplane. ”
Only a fifth of epidemiologists said it was safe for fully vaccinated people to socialize indoors without masks in a group of unlimited size. A majority said that indoor gatherings should be limited to five or fewer households.
Even outside, where the coronavirus is spreading much less often, almost all epidemiologists said it was necessary to keep wearing masks en masse when people are around others whose vaccination status they do not know.
“Masks are the second most important vaccine prevention strategy,” said Professor Raifman.