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America’s CDC abruptly changes its guidance on face-masks

Fri 06 Aug 2021

ALMOST SINCE the onset of the pandemic people have spoken about when, if ever, the world would “return to normal”. The use of the face-mask is one sign of public confidence about whether the pandemic is being tamed.

In April 2020 America's Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a government agency that advises on health care, issued guidance that all people should wear masks when in enclosed public spaces. In an unexpected announcement on May 13th that guidance changed. The CDC now says that two weeks after completing a full regimen of covid-19 vaccination doses (usually two, but just one for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine), people no longer need to wear masks indoors; they should still wear one when in hospitals or travelling on public transport and aeroplanes.

The CDC does not make policy, but it can sway it, and its latest announcement has discombobulated policymakers and the public alike. On May 13th 20 states had mask mandates in place, but many changed their policy to fit with the new guidance. Pennsylvania, which had maintained that masks would be mandatory until the state had fully vaccinated 70% of its adults (it has so far jabbed 49%), now says that fully vaccinated people can go mask-free. California, by contrast, has maintained its all-in stance.

Survey data from YouGov, collected on behalf of The Economist, show that people were already changing their behaviour. In response to the question “In the past seven days how often have you worn a face mask outside your home?”, 65% of Americans answered “always” in early February, when mask use was at its peak (see chart above). In our latest survey on May 8th that figure was 45%. That may in part be because policymakers have relaxed their mask requirements. Texas, for example, lifted its mask mandate and reopened all businesses on March 2nd, a decision President Joe Biden called “neanderthal thinking”. Mask usage, which became as much a political symbol as a medical precaution in the run-up to last year's presidential election, remains most prevalent among people who identify as Democrats.

For states and local governments that do adopt the CDC’s guidance the change in effect puts the decision of whether to wear a mask in the hands of people and the proprietors of places they visit. Apple, Home Depot and Target have all maintained their mask requirements for their shops. Walmart, America’s largest retailer, along with Starbucks, Trader Joe’s and Costco, have said that they will no longer require fully vaccinated customers to wear masks. Because America does not have a vaccine “passport”, there is no good way to prove whether a person is fully vaccinated (New York state, which will adopt the new CDC guidance from May 19th, does have one). Retailers will be relying on their customers’ honesty.

Fortunately the most reckless people, who say they never wear masks and do not want to be vaccinated, are few. Over the past six weeks just 5% of respondents to our survey fall into this category. Perhaps unsurprisingly, maskless anti-vaxxers are twice as likely as the population at large to support the Republican Party; 60% of them are male; they are also less educated and more rural than the average American. That said, about two-in-three people fitting this profile are also likely to be vaccinated.

America has now fully vaccinated 47% of its adults and partially vaccinated another 13%. At current rates it can expect about another 50m people (20%) to have received at least one dose by July 4th. That is the date by when Mr Biden has said the country will hope to mark its “independence from this virus”. If the thought of going mask-free encourages more Americans to get vaccinated, the CDC’s gamble may yet help Mr Biden to fulfill his promise of restoring normality in time for the fireworks.

Source : The Economist