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CDC Issues New Recommendations On Face Coverings

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The CDC announced yesterday that if you are fully vaccinated, you may take off your mask in many outdoor settings. As with all mask guidance, the announcement raised plenty of questions. And NPR's Allison Aubrey is here to try to answer them.

Allison, good morning.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: I was peering at that CDC chart about what you can and can't do if you're following their recommendations - and they are recommendations, not rules. But what's an audio version of the chart? What can I do?

AUBREY: Yeah, sure. Well, there are a bunch of activities and settings where the agency says it's OK to go without wearing a mask if you've been fully vaccinated, including dining at an outdoor restaurant, attending outdoor gatherings, even if there are people who are unvaccinated there, and exercising outdoors. I should point out that the risk of the virus spreading outdoors is so low, Steve, that the CDC says it's even OK for people who are not yet vaccinated to be unmasked when they're exercising outdoors, say, walking, hiking, biking, as long as you're not doing this with crowds of people. The idea is if you do these exercises alone or with others in your household, it's OK.

INSKEEP: Why is being outside so long as you're not in a tight crowd so much safer than being indoors?

AUBREY: You know, it's safer because of all the natural airflow. I mean, think about it. There's constant circulation, and this means the virus doesn't have the opportunity to accumulate.

Dr. Monica Gandhi of UC San Francisco says there's a lot of evidence to back this up, including a recent study from China where they traced back thousands of coronavirus cases.

MONICA GANDHI: They did really careful contact tracing. Out of 7,324 infections, only one they could even trace to outdoor transmission. That's how rare we are. The risk of transmission is so much lower outside.

AUBREY: And by contrast, when you're indoors, there is often much less circulation and ventilation. So that's much more hospitable to viral spread.

INSKEEP: But what are the cases where you still should mask up?

AUBREY: Yeah. So CDC Director Rochelle Walensky outlined this yesterday when she released the guidelines at a White House briefing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROCHELLE WALENSKY: We continue to recommend masking in crowded outdoor settings and venues, such as packed stadiums and concerts, where there is a decreased ability to maintain physical distance and where many unvaccinated people may also be present.

AUBREY: And beyond this, the agency, Steve, has listed a bunch of other settings where everyone, including vaccinated people, should stay masked for now. This includes when you go to an indoor shopping mall or museum, when you go to a church service or other houses of worship where it's a full-capacity crowd and when you go to the hair salon or barber, when you take public transportation - all places where it might be tough to keep your distance.

INSKEEP: Enclosed spaces, crowded spaces for now - but when might we be rid of masks entirely?

AUBREY: You know, I think two things need to happen. Cases need to come down, and the U.S. is definitely on the right track right now. Just yesterday, Director Walensky said new cases have declined 21% in recent days. So that is...

INSKEEP: Wow.

AUBREY: ...Very positive. Also, more people need to get vaccinated. Clearly, there is a huge push right now. And the administration is hoping that this new mask guidance will motivate people.

Here's President Biden. He spoke about it yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: So for those who haven't gotten the vaccination yet, especially if you're younger or think you don't need it, this is another great reason to go get vaccinated now - now.

AUBREY: Because as we have heard, Steve, so many times, mass vaccination - getting as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible - is key to putting this pandemic behind us.

INSKEEP: Allison, thanks for the update.

AUBREY: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.