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Why a major nurses union thinks it’s too soon to relax mask rules

National Nurses United holds a gathering outside the White House on May 12 to protest working conditions and honor nurses who have died during the pandemic. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Soon after federal health officials announced new guidance telling fully vaccinated people they can go without masks in many places, the nation’s largest registered nurses union issued a critical retort: The pandemic is not over.

National Nurses United, which has more than 170,000 members, is calling on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to revoke its recommendations, saying they put front-line workers, including nurses, at risk, even though they don’t apply to most health-care settings. Pointing in part to the nation’s daily case counts, which average over 30,000 infections, the spread of virus variants, and questions about whether to trust those who say they are vaccinated, the union’s leaders say they want multiple pandemic protocols — such as mask-wearing and social distancing — to remain in place even as vaccinations continue.

“We are very concerned that they would do something like this when we are still in the middle of the pandemic,” union co-president Zenei Triunfo-Cortez said in an interview, referring to the CDC. “We continue to have patients, perhaps not in numbers that has been the same from last year or a few months ago, but it’s still a very big number.”

In a statement the union released Friday, its executive director Bonnie Castillo said: “Now is not the time to relax protective measures.”

The CDC announced last Thursday that the fully-vaccinated can go without masks or social distancing in many cases, even indoors — a marked shift for pandemic-weary Americans who have been eagerly awaiting such a milestone as the nation takes steps toward normalcy. Fully vaccinated people are still required to wear masks on planes, buses, trains and on public transportation. The agency says people should also wear masks in health-care settings, as well as when state, local or business rules require them. The CDC also reiterated its recommendation that unvaccinated people continue to wear masks, maintain social distance, avoid crowds and wash their hands.

CDC says fully vaccinated Americans no longer need masks indoors or outdoors in many cases

Quick changes followed the agency’s masking recommendations, which are advisory. Some major retailers dropped in-store mask mandates for the vaccinated. Numerous states, too, have followed the guidance by announcing they will ease restrictions for the fully vaccinated, even as others pushed back. After California announced it wouldn’t ease its mask rules until June 15, the California Nurses Association, an affiliate of NNU, said it was “encouraged” by the decision to keep protocols in place until then.

On May 16, Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, spoke about the agency’s change on mask-wearing. (Video: The Washington Post)

On multiple Sunday morning news shows, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky defended the guidance, saying the agency weighed a growing body of data showing the real-world effectiveness of the vaccines in protecting people from the virus, including from the more contagious variants, as well as in reducing transmission.

“We now have science that has really just evolved, even in the last two weeks,” Walensky said on ABC News’ “This Week.”

One study the CDC released Friday of nearly 2,000 health workers in 25 states showed the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines reduced the risk of covid-19 by 94 percent. In a news release, Walensky said that report, among other studies, was “pivotal to CDC changing its recommendations for those who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.”

The CDC did not respond to a request for comment on the union’s concerns.

Some others in the medical community have also questioned the abrupt relaxation of restrictions from the CDC, and the way it announced the turnabout. More than a dozen physicians interviewed last week by The Post expressed concern that the decision was premature, since a majority of Americans are not yet fully vaccinated.

Over the weekend, Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s top infectious-disease expert, said there may be “some merit” to questions about whether the public could have been better prepared for the message shift, adding that more clarifying guidance was forthcoming.

Walensky said during a Tuesday briefing that the agency is working on guidance for camps, schools and businesses to provide information explaining what’s recommended for fully vaccinated people in such settings.

The nurses group said it sees masks as part of a multilayered approach to continued protection against the virus, and called for multiple measures, including social distancing, mask-wearing, and avoiding crowds and large gatherings, to still be implemented alongside continued vaccinations.

“This pandemic is not over,” union co-president Deborah Burger said in a statement. “Nurses follow the precautionary principle, which means that until we know for sure something is safe, we use the highest level of protections, not the lowest.”

Triunfo-Cortez told The Post that vaccines are “very good, but it is not the be-all, end-all solution.”

She questioned whether they would continue to be effective against virus variants, even as health officials point to evidence showing they are protective against more contagious variants circulating nationwide, albeit at lower levels in some cases.

Union leaders also cited the vaccination gap for communities of color.

“There has been so much inequity in the vaccine rollout, and racial inequity in who is a front line worker put most at risk by this guidance,” Triunfo-Cortez said in a separate statement released by the union. “The impact of the CDC’s guidance update will be felt disproportionately by workers of color and their families and communities.”

Triunfo-Cortez also said she worried that people who forgo masks in public places may not be truthful about their vaccination status.

“How do we know whether a person is fully vaccinated or not? We have no way of tracking that,” she said.

The new mask guidance relies on an honor system. Do we trust each other enough to make it work?

While CDC guidance still recommends mask-wearing in health care settings, including for the fully vaccinated, Triunfo-Cortez said the group is also worried about interactions beyond hospital walls.

“We nurses interact with the public not just in the hospital with our patients and families, but in the public,” she said.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention head Rochelle Walensky said on May 19 that a better public health framework could have changed the pandemic’s course. (Video: The Washington Post)

Read more:

The million-dollar jab and other giveaways reveal a desperate push to vaccinate America

Mask-free freedom comes to Washington region. But politeness, local rules keep some faces covered.

Is it now reasonable to discuss the end of the pandemic? Yes, but with caveats.

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