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Mask on? Mask off? Decoding the Latest CDC Guidance

With SMH Infectious Disease expert Manuel Gordillo, MD

With continued declines across the nation in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths, and a steady increase in people getting the COVID-19 vaccine, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released new advice for mask-wearing and social distancing this week. This updated guidance offers a welcome glimpse of a “more normal” future, especially for those fully vaccinated against COVID-19. 

Released April 27, the new CDC guidelines stress that outdoor gatherings and activities are the safest, regardless of your vaccination status, and they detail the conditions that are safe for fully vaccinated people to go mask-free, with and without social distancing.

CDC Masking Guidance Highlights

 
  • Use common sense when choosing activities. Consider how COVID-19 is spreading in the community, the number of people participating and the location.

  • Outdoor activities are safer than indoor.

  • Not yet vaccinated? Get the shot. Click here for vaccination sites in our area.

  • Fully vaccinated*? You can now safely do many things you had stopped doing because of COVID-19:
    • Outdoors: No mask needed, except in certain crowded settings and venues where distancing is not possible.

    • Indoors: No mask or distancing needed when attending a small indoor gathering with other fully vaccinated people or with unvaccinated people from a single household, unless someone in the group has an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19. Large indoor gatherings are still not recommended.

    • Travel: No need to get tested before / after U.S. travel, and no need to self-quarantine after travel in the U.S. Mask-wearing is still recommended when travelling. Click here for guidance on international travel.

    • COVID-19 exposure: No need to get tested or self-quarantine, unless you experience symptoms or live in a group setting (assisted living, college dorms, etc.)
 

*  If you have a condition or are taking medications that weaken your immune system, you may NOT be fully protected even if you are fully vaccinated. Talk to your doctor.

“I think the guidelines issued by the CDC are as science-based as they can get,” said Infectious Disease specialist Manuel Gordillo, MD, who leads Sarasota Memorial’s Infection Prevention and Control unit and has been at the forefront of our community’s fight against COVID-19. “Obviously, you still need to make some common-sense decisions, but as we learn more in this pandemic and as we see improvements, there will be more concessions for fully vaccinated people — more things we can do.

“We are doing so much better than we were doing only 2 or 3 months ago. And we're headed in the right direction,” he added. “I'm very optimistic.”

Below, Dr. Gordillo offers clarification and insights on the CDC’s most recent advice for safer activities. (Click here for the CDC’s newly published guidelines for fully vaccinated people.) 

Outdoor Activities: Mask On, or Mask Off?

Gathering outdoors is much safer than indoors. As a general rule, you’re 18 times LESS likely to get a COVID-19 infection outdoors, Dr. Gordillo said.

“I would say anybody — vaccinated and un-vaccinated people — can go to the beach without a mask, can go to a park without a mask, can walk, run, ride your bicycle. It's perfect,” he said.

“Vaccinated people, for the most part, can go anywhere outdoors without a mask,” he added. “There are a few exceptions where you still should wear a mask — if you're in a large gathering and there's no possibility of proper distancing. Obviously, the bigger the event, the more problematic social distancing could become. So, it’s something that you're going to have to make a risk assessment.”

Dr. Gordillo offered a few examples: “Say you go to a full stadium and somebody is sitting next to you or some other big gathering where people are shoulder-to-shoulder, then where a mask. But if you can properly distance, the CDC says you don’t have to wear a mask in that setting.”

The guidance is not the same for people who aren’t fully vaccinated.

Indoor Activities: Mask On, or Mask Off?

Small groups of people can gather indoors, if they're all vaccinated, Dr. Gordillo explained. 

“I would say that even larger groups can gather indoors, if they're all vaccinated,” he added. “But, that gets into a difficult part where we're going to have to know who is vaccinated. If you have gatherings with people you know and they're all vaccinated and you trust them, then yes, that would be OK.”

When it comes to indoor activities and get-togethers, we're just going to have to use common sense, said Dr. Gordillo.

What about Going to the Gym if You’re Fully Vaccinated? 

“You can go to the gym, but you need to be selective,” Dr. Gordillo advised. “Go to a gym that follows the proper protocols — where there’s adequate ventilation, distancing and most people are masked under certain conditions — because 20% to 30% of the other people there aren’t going to be vaccinated. And you don't know who they are.”

Vaccinations in the Sarasota Community 

“Our community has done tremendously well in vaccinating people, which is our main tool to get beyond this pandemic,” Dr. Gordillo said. “The hospital has done well. The city has done well. The county, the volunteers and the people that have been embracing this vaccine. There are some pockets where we can do better, but our 65 and over population has a very high vaccination rate — in the upper 80% — and we can probably reach the mid 90% for that population.

“Kudos to everyone in Sarasota.”

What’s Next in Our Fight Against COVID-19?

“Viruses mutate, and that's a fact of life. They're going to continue to mutate. The more virus there is out there, the more opportunity for this virus to mutate and become resistant to our medications or to our vaccine,” Dr. Gordillo explained.

“The only way things are going to improve is if we protect ourselves from getting infected by getting vaccinated and using common sense with all the things we’ve used for the last year — masks, distancing, safer behaviors. Little by little, daily living will start to resemble what it was in 2019.”

All of us can do a little better, he said. All of us can encourage someone else to get vaccinated. And we especially need to encourage younger people to get vaccinated against COVID-19. 

“What I tell the younger people is that while you're not high risk, you can still get sick and you can still get post-COVID syndrome,” Dr. Gordillo said. “Un-vaccinated people are a risk to themselves. If they acquire the virus, they're going to get sick and possibly spread it others, like the children who cannot get vaccinated but who can get sick.”

We not only need to look at our community, but outside our communities — and even outside the U.S. — to find ways we can help. 

“Everyone has a self-interest in getting vaccinated because you want to end this epidemic. You want to return to as normal as we can,” he said. “If you get vaccinated, we can get rid of this virus. 

“We are all in this together.”

 

** NOTE: This content was originally posted April 30, 2021. Information related to COVID-19 and COVID-19 vaccines is continually evolving. For the most up to date info, we recommend visiting cdc.gov.

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Posted: Apr 30, 2021,
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Author: Ann Key
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