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Like many Americans, I was surprised earlier this month when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that fully vaccinated Americans no longer need to wear masks indoors or outdoors. There are exceptions to the guidance, such as locations ‘where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance,’ but as the CDC website states, ‘If you are fully vaccinated, you can resume activities that you did prior to the pandemic.’
Clinical trials have shown that COVID-19 vaccines are highly efficacious. The two-dose vaccines available in the United States (U.S.) are roughly 95% effective. And, according to the CDC, about 40% of the total U.S. population is fully vaccinated. At the same time, we know that vaccines are not perfect; they do not eliminate all risk. The risks of vaccinated persons becoming infected depend on many factors including conditions in their local communities such as vaccine coverage and amounts of infection that are circulating. It’s important to tailor public health messages to acknowledge that the best guidance may not be “one size fits all.” Such messages require close coordination between national and local public health agencies.
A closer look at COVID-19 vaccination statistics reveals imbalances in vaccine coverage across U.S counties and across race/ethnicity, gender, and age groups. One of the only constants of the pandemic is that the burden of COVID-19 is not distributed equally.
We need to increase access to COVID-19 vaccines and associated resources without delay, and tackle racism and other root causes of roadblocks to increasing vaccination coverage. It is also imperative that we work to increase coordination among our health agencies so that accurate, timely, and responsible information can be tailored and made accessible to communities.
The federal government’s new mask guidelines were announced abruptly and confusion ensued. It is tough to say what effect a better coordinated public health communication plan would have had, but as we move ahead during this fragile time what we can be sure of is that the stakes remain high. Communities will continue to reopen and look to the field of public health for guidance. We must do all that we can to earn and keep that trust intact.
Dr. Ron Brookmeyer
UCLA Fielding School of Public Health