May 13, 2021 -- People who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 are no longer required to wear masks or physically distance, regardless of the location or size of the gathering, the CDC announced Thursday.

“Anyone who is fully vaccinated can participate in indoor and outdoor activities, large or small, without wearing a mask or physically distancing,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, said at a news briefing Thursday. “We have all longed for this moment when we can get back to some sense of normalcy.

“This is an exciting and powerful moment,” she said. “It could only happen because of the work from so many who made sure we had the rapid administration of three safe and effective vaccines.”

The CDC’s guidance quickly took hold, even in the White House. President Joe Biden met Thursday with a group of Republican senators to discuss an infrastructure plan, and all removed their masks as they gathered, according to the White House press pool.

Later, Biden spoke about the new CDC guidance and what it means for the country.

“You did what I consider to be your patriotic duty,” Biden said, referring to the millions of Americans who have gotten vaccinated. “That’s how we’ve gotten to this day.”

It’s wonderful news for those who have been vaccinated, Biden said.

“But if you’ve not been vaccinated … you still need to wear a mask,” he said. “We’ve gotten this far. Please protect yourself until we get to the finish line. As great as this announcement is today we don’t want to let up.”

“For now, after a year of so much hard work and sacrifice the message is simple: get vaccinated or wear a mask until you do. It’s ‘vaxed or masked.’” 

Walensky said three large studies on the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines against the original virus and its variants helped inform the new guidance. One study from Israel found the vaccine to be 97% effective against symptomatic infection.

Those who have symptoms should still wear masks, she said, and those who are immunocompromised should talk to their doctors for further guidance. The CDC still advises travelers to wear masks while on airplanes, buses, or trains. The guidance still calls for wearing masks in some indoor settings, including hospitals, homeless shelters, and prisons. 

“The science demonstrates that if you’re fully vaccinated, you’re protected,” Walensky said, even in the presence of unmasked, unvaccinated people. “We are going to be looking at our guidance and updating it, including the travel guidance, shortly.”

But the new CDC guidance does not overrule state and local government laws or regulations requiring masks.

COVID-19 death rates are now the lowest they have been since April 2020, and cases continue to drop as vaccination rates increase. The U.S. is now averaging 36,800 cases a day, Walensky said.

President Joe Biden has said he aims to get enough Americans vaccinated by July 4 to celebrate the holiday without the looming threat of COVID-19. His administration’s goal is to get 70% of U.S. adults at least partially vaccinated and having 160 million adults fully vaccinated by Independence Day.

In addition to the new guidelines, Walensky announced that $7.4 billion from the American Rescue Plan will be used to hire and train public health workers across the country. More than half of that, $4.4 billion, will go toward states and local areas, and $3 billion will support preparations for future pandemics.

It will also expand the number of CDC epidemic intelligence service officers, who work to investigate and help control outbreaks.

“Though many threats have increased in complexity and scale in recent years, our nation’s public health workforce has gotten smaller,” Walensky said. “This support will immediately add more staff in health departments across the country; it will add school nurses to K-12 schools to support safe reopening and operations and support vaccinations.”