The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made a big announcement on Thursday: Fully vaccinated people can now go without masks indoors, under most circumstances.
"If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic," CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said during a White House COVID-19 response team briefing. "We have all longed for this moment. ... That moment has come for those who are fully vaccinated."
While many people celebrated the news, several parents expressed concern. "And how do I know that the people around my unvaccinated child are actually vaccinated? Seems premature when a sizable share of the population are still ineligible for vaccination," one wrote on Twitter. "This is really really unhelpful," another said. "Please, consider kids and others who don't have access to the vaccine and increasingly contagious variants that are better at getting around the vaccine."
Under the new CDC guidance, fully vaccinated adults are able to go maskless in many public spaces. But those who are unvaccinated — including children under the age of 12 who aren't even eligible to be vaccinated at this time — still need to wear a mask to protect against COVID-19.
"Remember that unvaccinated kids need to continue all the previous precautions," Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician in Akron, Ohio, and a professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Life. "This will become quite a challenge for parents, I suspect."
Watkins acknowledges that "there really is no way to tell if someone not wearing a mask is vaccinated or not," which is a major concern posed by parents.
This raises even more questions, such as whether teachers will still be wearing masks in school to protect students or if it's even safe to take children under age 2, who can't even wear a mask yet, to places like the grocery store.
Dr. Daniel Ganjian, a pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Life that people are "risking children's lives" if they don't wear a mask indoors and are unvaccinated. "You have to be very careful and know that your mask-wearing will save the lives of children," he says.
"Additionally, individuals who are vaccinated can still wear masks to keep themselves and others around them protected if they want," Dr. Jill Weatherhead, assistant professor of tropical medicine and infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. "I personally will continue to wear masks in crowded, indoor environments until there is further reduction in community transmission because my children are not vaccinated yet — as they are less than 12 years old — and I live with someone who is immunocompromised."
Ganjian anticipates that some schools may require face coverings for teachers and staff in the fall, and some may not. "I think it will depend on the area and how much the coronavirus is going around at the time," he says.
Infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life that he expects many stores and venues will continue to require masks for entry "because it is operationally difficult to know who is vaccinated and who isn’t." But he says it may be different in workplaces, at events and in other scenarios where vaccination status can be verified.
To keep your unvaccinated children safe in public, Weatherhead stresses the importance of continuing to have them wear masks. She also suggests avoiding "high-risk situations" such as crowded indoor areas as much as possible. "Parents and caregivers who are vaccinated may also consider continuing to wear a mask around kids to provide extra protection for their unvaccinated children and to encourage their kids to keep masking through modeling the behavior," she says.
For younger children who can't wear a mask, consider what is happening locally with COVID-19, as well as where you plan to take them, Dr. Juan C. Salazar, physician in chief and executive vice president of academic affairs at Connecticut Children's Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life. "Families need to make informed decisions," he says. "If they're going to be attending large gatherings, they still have to be careful."
Salazar recommends considering factors like local case counts and what percentage of the population is vaccinated against COVID-19. "In Connecticut, about 70 percent of the population is vaccinated, so the concept of herd immunity begins to take place, even if the kids are not vaccinated," he says. In that situation, it may be safer to take unvaccinated children into a public space like a grocery store, he says.
But in other areas of the country, where vaccination rates are lower and COVID-19 transmission is still high, Salazar says that parents "need to make a little different decision on risks."
Overall, though, "the recommendation from CDC is biologically based and reflects the science of how the vaccine dramatically changes risks," Adalja says.
But Weatherhead urges parents to remember that "the guidance does not change" for unvaccinated children. "Children will need to wear masks in public, avoid large indoor gatherings and get vaccinated as soon as possible," she says.
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