Colorado’s mask mandate is going to change in the near future to align with new federal guidance that says vaccinated people can safely go without masks in most indoor settings, a spokeswoman for Gov. Jared Polis said Thursday afternoon.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends that vaccinated people wear masks on public transportation, in hospitals and in crowded settings like prisons and homeless shelters. Until Thursday, the agency had asked vaccinated people to continue masking in indoor public places, and in crowded outdoor settings.
The CDC highly recommends that unvaccinated people wear masks indoors, or at outdoor gatherings when other people who aren’t fully vaccinated are present. Director Rochelle Walensky encouraged people with compromised immune systems to talk to their doctors before going maskless, because it’s less clear if their bodies will produce a sufficient response to the vaccines.
The new guidance issued Thursday doesn’t have the force of law, so states, counties and other governments will have to decide how they want to respond. It also doesn’t suggest policies for public settings, where vaccinated and unvaccinated people mix.
Colorado’s statewide order currently requires masks for indoor settings where 10 or more people are present, and fewer than 80% are known to be vaccinated, such as grocery stores, indoor entertainment venues and schools. It’s your choice whether to wear a mask outside, at personal gatherings where everyone is vaccinated, or in public places with only a few others (though some counties have stricter rules, and businesses can require all customers to mask up).
Shelby Wieman, a spokeswoman for Polis, said the governor “will be updating our mask order to follow CDC guidance shortly.”
Regardless of what the state does, some vaccinated people may be more comfortable continuing to wear masks, said Dr. Eric France, chief medical officer for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
“I would say every Coloradan should assess their comfort level,” he said.
Glen Mays, a professor of health policy at Colorado School of Public Health, said he’s “cautiously optimistic” that the new mask guideline will be an incentive for people to get inoculated against the virus. It also clarifies the public health messaging around vaccines, he said.
“It helps with this clarity of message,” he said. “At this stage, the rest of the fight around the pandemic is really around vaccination. And if you get the vaccines, it’s so effective that we don’t need these other protections.”
Mays cautioned that loosening restrictions is “not without risk,” though. Starting Sunday, most counties in the metro area will allow businesses to operate at 100% of capacity, though they still will require masks in some settings. Denver “anticipates aligning” with those counties’ move to the new Level Clear, and will announce details Friday, a city spokesperson said.
“(It) fundamentally depends on where we are with vaccinations,” he said. “That’s a significant shift in our response.”
The CDC’s new mask guidance is ushering in a new phase of the pandemic by making it clear that fully vaccinated people can start returning to their normal routines, said Beth Carlton, an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at the Colorado School of Public Health.
But people who aren’t fully vaccinated still need to take precautions, such as physically distancing and wearing masks, she said, noting that the recent rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations was driven by infections among those not inoculated against the coronavirus.
“This guidance is about people who are fully vaccinated and if you are not yet in that club you need to proceed with caution,” she said.
The new guidance could cause confusion, since there is no surefire way for businesses or others to distinguish between those who are fully vaccinated and those who are not. Walensky and President Joe Biden said people who are not fully vaccinated should continue to wear masks indoors.
“We’ve gotten this far — please protect yourself until you get to the finish line,” Biden said, noting that most Americans under 65 are not yet fully vaccinated.
The CDC and the Biden administration have faced pressure to ease restrictions on fully vaccinated people — those who are two weeks past their last required COVID-19 vaccine dose — in part to highlight the benefits of getting the shot. The country’s aggressive vaccination campaign has paid off: U.S. virus cases are at their lowest rate since September, deaths are at their lowest point since last April and the test positivity rate is at the lowest point since the pandemic began.
“We have all longed for this moment — when we can get back to some sense of normalcy,” Walensky said at a White House briefing Thursday.
New COVID-19 cases have been falling in Colorado for about two weeks, and hospitalizations also began to decline in recent days, state epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy said. Kids ages 11 to 17 still account for the largest share of new cases, but the number who are infected is falling.
“Across all age groups, we are starting to see signs of improvement,” she said.
Walensky said evidence from the U.S. and Israel shows the vaccines are as strongly protective in real-world use as they were in earlier studies, and that so far they continue to work even though some worrying mutated versions of the virus are spreading.
To date, about 154 million Americans, more than 46% of the population, have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and more than 117 million are fully vaccinated. The rate of new vaccinations has slowed in recent weeks, but with the authorization Wednesday of the Pfizer shot for children ages 12 to 15, a new burst of doses is expected in the coming days.
In Colorado, more than 2.2 million people are fully vaccinated, and about 500,000 others are partway through the process. Kate McIntire, deputy director of the state vaccine task force, said about 49% of people over 16 have been vaccinated, though the percentage will drop in the coming days as they calculate from the larger pool of eligible people.
While some people still get COVID-19 despite being vaccinated, that’s rare, and the infections tend to be shorter and milder, Walensky said. If people who are vaccinated do develop COVID-19 symptoms, they should immediately put their mask back on and get tested, she said.
The more get vaccinated now, the less likely it is that Colorado will face a COVID-19 spike in the fall, when respiratory viruses circulate more easily, Herlihy said.
“The more individuals that are vaccinated now, the better position we’re going to be in,” she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
This content was originally published here.