WASHINGTON — Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on Sunday defended her agency’s decision to issue new and loosened guidelines on mask-wearing, changes that have sparked confusion among state and local officials, as well as businesses.
In an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Walensky stressed that “evolving science” drove the decision to update the government’s guidance to allow those fully vaccinated for Covid-19 to safely shed their masks in most circumstances, and she said that the agency wanted to get the information to Americans as quickly as possible.
“Everybody, as we are working towards opening up again after 16 months getting out of this pandemic, will need to understand what they need to do locally. And this was not permission to shed masks for everybody everywhere. This was really science-driven individual assessment of your risk,” Walensky said.
“Right now, the data, the science shows us that it’s safe for vaccinated people to take off their masks. I, as the CDC director, promised the American people I would convey that science to you as we know it.”
The new guidelines say that those who are fully vaccinated against Covid-19, two weeks after their final shot, can safely choose not to wear a mask in most indoor and many outdoor circumstances.
The news came as a relief to a pandemic-weary public more than a year after the emergence of the strict public-health guidelines aimed at slowing the spread of the virus that has led to the death more than 589,000 people in America.
But it also came as a surprise, even to key stakeholders. Walensky and other federal public health officials had defended the old guidance, which recommended that all people wear masks in most public settings and practice social distancing regardless of vaccination status, as recently as a Tuesday Senate hearing.
State and local officials spent the next few days issuing new rules in response — some states said they would end state mask mandates, others said the removal of mask mandates would be based on vaccination rates, and others made no changes.
In the business world, some companies announced they would no longer require fully vaccinated customers to wear masks, but labor groups have raised concerns that workers could be put at risk because it will be difficult to determine whether customers without masks are in fact vaccinated.
“We are asking people to be honest with themselves,” Walensky said. “If they are vaccinated and they are not wearing a mask, they are safe. If they are not vaccinated and they are not wearing a mask, they are not safe.”
Mayor Quinton Lucas of Kansas City, Missouri, who lifted the city’s emergency mask order in response to the CDC guidance, called the guidance “welcome” but a decision that “creates confusion” with the city’s emergency order that required masks in most indoor settings.
“Staff at many establishments have been subject to harassment based on upholding our orders and we will not force them to do so further where our regulators cannot reasonably tell between those vaccinated or not,” he said in a statement.
Asked about the timing of the decision, Walensky said that “we have science that has really evolved just even in the last week,” pointing to new studies released in recent days.
“It was very clear that places were starting to make their own assessments, and we wanted to make sure they understood it was safe at the individual level,” she said of fully vaccinated people limiting the need for masks.
“It was going to be nearly impossible for us to revise all, thousands of pages of our guidance simultaneously, and release it all, one at a time. We needed this building block, this first step, so we could say: This is the science upon which all future guidance will be based upon.”
Ben Kamisar is a political writer for NBC News.