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Opinion The CDC shouldn’t have removed restrictions without requiring proof of vaccination

A worker wearing a protective mask scans an item at a Home Depot store in Pleasanton, Calif., in February. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)

For months, I have been criticizing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for being too cautious with its guidance for what fully vaccinated people can do. I saw little incentive for people to be vaccinated against covid-19 if they had to keep wearing masks, avoiding gatherings and refraining from nonessential travel. On Thursday, the CDC abruptly reversed course, announcing that fully vaccinated people can essentially resume all aspects of pre-pandemic life.

This announcement would be very welcome if not for one big problem: There is no concurrent requirement for proof of vaccination. Without it, the CDC announcement could end up increasing confusion, removing incentives for those yet to be inoculated and delaying the eventual goal of herd immunity that would get society truly back to normal.

Should we keep wearing masks? Submit your questions for Dr. Leana S. Wen’s May 18 live chat

Don’t get me wrong, I agree with CDC Director Rochelle Walensky that there is extensive and growing evidence that those who are vaccinated are very well protected from becoming ill and spreading the coronavirus to others. In fact, the most recent data from the CDC reports only 9,245 infections in 95 million fully vaccinated people, an infection rate of less than 0.01 percent. As I’ve written before, if you’ve reached the two-week threshold after inoculation, you should feel free to be rid of restrictions for yourself.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky on May 13 said that fully vaccinated Americans can participate in most indoor and outdoor activities without wearing a mask. (Video: The Washington Post)

The problem is this: You know what you’re doing, but you have no way to be confident of trusting everyone else. Let’s say you go the grocery store. It’s crowded and few people there are masked. Perhaps everyone is vaccinated, but perhaps not. What if you’re vaccinated but not fully protected because you’re immunocompromised? You can no longer count on CDC rules to help you keep safe. What if you don’t have child care, so you had to bring your kids along? They didn’t choose to remain unvaccinated — the shots aren’t available for them. Surely, it’s not fair to put them at risk.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

Here’s another example. As employers are formulating return-to-work policies, many employees are expressing that they are nervous about coming back in person. What reassures them is if the workplace continues to abide by mitigation measures such as masking and distancing, or, in its place, the employer requires vaccination. Imagine, if you will, now being scheduled to come into an office where vaccination isn’t checked and masking is, therefore, optional.

And what about the broad danger of enabling and encouraging people who never wanted to wear masks and refuse to be vaccinated? They could spread the virus among themselves, freed from inhibition.

By resorting to the honor code, the CDC is removing a critical incentive to vaccination. Many who were on the fence might have been motivated to get the shot because they could go back to activities they were missing, without a mask. Now, if no one is checking, and they can do everything anyway, why bother?

As one senior local health official in Maryland told me, “This announcement at this stage makes zero sense. We’re dropping off a cliff with demand already on vaccinations. This will further remove individual incentive to get a shot.” He likened the CDC’s decision-making to “throwing darts at random” — that’s how much trust he now has in this once-revered institution.

To be sure, the CDC is still saying that masks are needed in certain settings including airplanes, hospitals and nursing homes. Individual businesses are still able to make their own requirements. However, businesses often depend on the CDC to back up their policies. Many were already under pressure to drop mask mandates. Now, who will stop a maskless person from walking into an establishment, self-identifying as being vaccinated, acting as they choose and citing the CDC as the reason they can potentially endanger others?

The CDC has gone from one extreme to the other, from over-caution to throwing caution to the wind. Its new guidance could have been exactly what we needed to encourage vaccination, but it skipped a key step. It should be revised to say that fully vaccinated people should have no restrictions on their public activities if vaccination status can be verified. That means stores, theaters and restaurants can be at full capacity, without masks, if they check vaccination status. The CDC should also set a level of community vaccination, at which point they can do away with this step — for example, if 70 percent of a community is vaccinated, everyone can take off their masks, vaccinated or not.

Read the transcript of Dr. Leana S. Wen’s coronavirus live chat

We’ve come a long way in the pandemic, but not as far as the CDC has suddenly taken us. The vaccinated may be well-protected, but let’s not forget our obligation to those who do not yet have immunity — and our commitment to end this pandemic once and for all.

Read more:

Shantanu Nundy and Marty Makary: Businesses could sorely use guidance on bringing workers back to the office. Where’s the CDC?

The Post’s View: The CDC’s strong leadership is taking steps to repair Trump’s errors

Leana S. Wen: Teens could become the ambassadors for vaccination that we need

Michael Gerson: If you are healthy and refuse to take the vaccine, you are a free-rider

Leana S. Wen: The CDC is missing a critical opportunity to get Americans vaccinated

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will likely knock out monoclonal antibodies, targeted drugs that can be used as a treatment or to protect immunocompromised people.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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