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How Do We Know Whether People Without Masks Indoors Are Vaccinated?


Let's bring in another voice now. Dr. Leana Wen is a public health professor at George Washington University, and she has got some concerns about the new CDC policy. She joins us on Skype. Dr. Wen, thanks for being here.

LEANA WEN: Happy to be with you.

MARTIN: You've expressed some concerns about the CDC's new mask policy. What are they?

WEN: Well, I found them to be stunning because the CDC seems to have gone from one extreme of overcaution to another of basically throwing caution out the window. I mean, just two weeks ago, they issued guidance, basically saying that people who are fully vaccinated even have to be wearing masks outdoors in some settings. And it wasn't clear whether colleagues who are fully vaccinated can be going into the same conference room and not wear masks around one another. So they went from that to totally saying you don't even need masks at all or distancing basically in nearly all settings. And look, I understand the intention and actually I've been one of the voices pushing the CDC to make clear that vaccines are really effective.

MARTIN: Right.

WEN: And so we need to start acting like it. And I think that this - I actually think that being able to tell people you can get vaccinated, throw away the mask, is a powerful incentive for a lot of individuals. The problem, though, is that only works if it's coupled with some kind of proof of vaccination because if you only have the honor code, you've got some big potential problems here. People who don't want to get vaccinated could just stop wearing masks.

MARTIN: So talk to me about that concern because, as we heard Richard Harris report just there, they're really putting just themselves and each other at risk, the unvaccinated, right? I'm loathe to group people like that, but people who are vaccinated don't spread the virus, and they don't get the virus. So what is the concern if you're in a grocery store, you've been vaccinated, you're not wearing a mask, you - the CDC says you should be safe.

WEN: Well, I agree that people who are fully vaccinated are well protected themselves for the most part. There is an exception. That's individuals who are immunocompromised, which is actually a lot of individuals. I mean, patients, for example, who have cancer and are on chemotherapy are not as well protected or people who have organ transplants or on immunosuppressants. That's actually a lot of people as well. The other thing, too, is there are lots of unvaccinated individuals who actually are made less safe by this policy. I have two little kids. I have a 1-year-old and a 3-year-old. If I'm bringing them into the grocery store, they're not vaccinated, not because I don't believe in vaccinations. I would love for them to be vaccinated, but they can't be.

MARTIN: Right. There isn't one yet for them. Right.

WEN: Exactly. And so if I'm bringing them into the grocery store and now there are people around us for all maskless, I have no way of knowing if the person breathing on my children and standing very close to them without a mask is unvaccinated. And I actually think that we could be taking away a disincentive here because if you can do whatever you want, regardless of vaccination, then what's the point?

MARTIN: So if you were sitting with the CDC or President Biden, I mean, what would be your guidance on how to propose rolling back some of these masking guidelines? Because, as you admit, like, there needs to be some kind of incentive built into this so that people see the benefit of getting vaccinated.

WEN: I think what the CDC could have done was to lay out a road map and get us to this ultimate destination through smaller steps. There are actually two really key missing intermediate steps. One is to say fully vaccinated people can be around one another in formal settings. So that paves the way for employers to say, hey, if you're vaccinated, you can come back into the office, be in this conference room together. We can take off our masks, no distancing. It paves the way for restaurants, theaters to say if there's proof of vaccination, we can be here at full capacity. And then the CDC could say once we achieve a societal level of vaccination, whatever that may be, 60%, 70%, then we can remove indoor masking mandates and social distancing. That would have been something for people to look forward to. That would have added an incentive. It also would have been less abrupt because this was so sudden that businesses, local health officials are really reeling because what the CDC essentially did yesterday was to eliminate masking and social distancing for everyone and to make it optional. And I really worry about the consequences, especially to those who are not yet vaccinated.

MARTIN: Do I hear you saying you're still going to wear a mask?

WEN: I am still going to be cautious. I also live in an area where I think it will not be accepted if I don't wear a mask because, again, you can't tell if somebody is vaccinated or not. And I also want to be careful to protect those in the community who are the most vulnerable. I'm very fortunate that I'm well protected through vaccination, but children are not. Those who are immunocompromised are not fully. And I still think it's a good idea for us to use an abundance of caution, especially to protect those who are more vulnerable.

MARTIN: Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University, thank you so much.

WEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.