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What You Need To Know About The CDC's New Mask Guidance

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Masks are starting to drop in some parts of the country as states and businesses respond to new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC says that, with some exceptions, fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks indoors or outside. But are people shedding their masks too fast? For that, we have NPR's Maria Godoy joining us. Good morning, Maria.

MARIA GODOY, BYLINE: Good morning.

SIMON: First, what are those exceptions?

GODOY: Well, the CDC says you still need to wear a mask if you're taking a plane or riding a bus or train or other form of public transportation. And the CDC doesn't actually run your local or state health department. It just offers them guidance and support. That said, several states have already announced plans to drop their mask mandates immediately or in the coming weeks in response to the new guidance. But in some places, local mask mandates might still remain in effect.

SIMON: Does this mean, Maria, that businesses can still require people to wear masks if they so choose?

GODOY: Yeah. For instance, Trader Joe's is dropping its mask requirements, but Kroger, Target and Harris Teeter have all said they're going to keep theirs in place for now. So it really varies from business to business.

SIMON: Doesn't this practically put businesses in a difficult position? I mean, how would somebody working in a store know if an unmasked customer is fully vaccinated or not?

GODOY: I mean, they wouldn't. And that's one of the big criticisms about the CDC guidance from people like Marc Perrone. He's the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. That's the largest union for frontline retail and grocery workers. He says the new mass guidance puts his union's members at risk.

MARC PERRONE: Inside facilities where there are large numbers of people that you have no way of knowing who's been vaccinated and who hasn't been vaccinated, it is very difficult to create a situation where we feel as though that our members will be safe.

GODOY: Now, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky says as long as you've been vaccinated, you're protected. But Perrone notes that many of his union's members still aren't vaccinated, although they're working on it. And the other thing to remember is that while the vaccines are really good, they're not 100% effective. And for some people, especially immunocompromised people, that's a real problem.

SIMON: And you've done some reporting on this realm - haven't you? - how this guidance could affect people who are immunocompromised.

GODOY: Right. Well, research suggests that the vaccines may not be as effective in people who are highly immunosuppressed, and it may depend in part on their medication and their specific medical condition. So the doctors I've been talking to say right now, if you're immunocompromised, even if you're fully vaccinated, you should not assume you're protected. So keep your masks on, and keep social distancing.

SIMON: Maria, what has there been this change in masking guidance now? And what about the concern of people that it's just coming too soon?

GODOY: Well, Walensky told NPR of the CDC's new guidance reflects the current state of the pandemic in the U.S., along with evidence that the vaccines are extremely effective.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ROCHELLE WALENSKY: All of that science, in conjunction with all of the epidemiologic data that we have, really says now is the moment.

GODOY: She points out that cases are down by about a third in the U.S., that vaccines are more readily available, and studies have shown the vaccines provide excellent protection against disease. But critics say vaccination rates are a lot lower for Black and Latino populations, which have been hard hit by this pandemic. They say the change in guidelines should have waited until vaccination rates were a lot higher in these more vulnerable populations.

SIMON: NPR's Maria Godoy, thanks so much.

GODOY: My pleasure, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.