By Constance M. Gistand, MD, MPH, FACP

On the heels of the the Centers for Disease Control announcement on Thursday, May 13, 2021, that people who are fully vaccinated do not need to wear masks or practice social distancing indoors or outdoors in most situations, the city of New Orleans is lifting its mask mandate for fully vaccinated residents.

Mayor Cantrell LaToya Cantrell made the announcement at a press conference Friday afternoon.

“We are not out of the woods just yet, but we have made significant progress,” Mayor Cantrell said in a press conference Friday, May 14. Fifteen months ago, New Orleans was that hotspot, but listening to leadership, our people trusted us and again flattened that splurge. AIt matter. The majority of our residents have taken that shot and done the right thing to protect ourselves and others. And because of that we can continue to follow the science. We can continue to follow the CDC guidelines. And because of that we are preapered to remove the mask mandate for individuals who have been vaccinated in out city.”

CDC officials are equally as optimistic about the change.

“We have all longed for this moment,” Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a White House news conference on Thursday. “If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic.” 

These recommendations were embraced by many and certainly represent a small step towards a return to normalcy. However, these recommendations come with certain caveats. It is still recommended that individuals wear their masks while visiting hospitals or congregate settings such as nursing homes, homeless shelters and jails. Moreover, masks are recommended during mass transit on buses, planes, and subways. Health experts caution that immunocompromised persons who are fully vaccinated should consult with their physician before removing their masks and that communities may still experience periodic spikes in disease spread or variants which may also prompt a change in these new mask/social distancing guidelines. 

Similarly, Mayor Cantrell announced that residents, regardless of vaccination status, would still need to mask up to meter city government buildings, K-12 schools, hospitals and other health care facilities and to use public transportation.

The new CDC guidelines were largely based upon the science and data demonstrating that the vaccines are highly efficacious. In fact, a most recent study released from the Cleveland Clinic showed that 99% of the coronavirus hospitalizations which occurred in the first four months of 2021 occurred in persons who were not vaccinated, further underscoring the need for all unvaccinated persons to consider obtaining the vaccine.

At the White House on Thursday, President Biden celebrated the new recommendations.

“I think it’s a great milestone, a great day,” Biden said during remarks in the White House Rose Garden without wearing a mask. “It’s been made possible by the extraordinary success we’ve had in vaccinating so many Americans so quickly. If you’re fully vaccinated and can take your mask off, you have earned the right to do something that Americans are known for all around the world: greeting others with a smile. With a smile. So, it is a good day for the country.” 

There is still some ambiguity surrounding these new recommendations in the retail industry. Most retail establishments have indicated that they still plan to leave mask mandates in place for customers entering their businesses. The new CDC recommendations were met with some criticism and skepticism from The United Food and Commercial Workers Union. The UFCW issued a press release on Thursday which stated, in part “While we all share the desire to return to a mask-free normal, today’s CDC guidance is confusing and fails to consider how it will impact essential workers who face frequent exposure to individuals who are not vaccinated and refuse to wear masks. Millions of Americans are doing the right thing and getting vaccinated, but essential workers are still forced to play mask police for shoppers who are unvaccinated and refuse to follow local COVID safety measures. Are they now supposed to become the vaccination police?”

The Union’s concerns bring forth a legitimate question, however. How will the public know who has or hasn’t been vaccinated? Will vaccinated individuals be required to show proof? Or is the whole point of the new recommendation to rely on the honor system and demonstrate the efficacy of the vaccine by the very act vaccinated individuals going maskless, trusting that the vaccine provides them the highest level of safety against the virus.

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