WE CAN all agree that face masks have been hard to bear, uncomfortable, politicized, smile-defeating, and a powerful symbol of pandemic life and its discontents. So it was joyful to hear the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announce on Thursday that fully vaccinated people do not have to wear them, either inside or outside. It feels like an inflection point. Despite clouds over the horizon, this is a moment for the United States to savor. For now at least, the covid-19 epidemic is ebbing.

We must pay tribute to first responders and health-care workers who endured — and still endure — soul-crushing days and nights to save lives. We must not forget more than 584,000 Americans who, through no fault of their own, were wrenched from our presence, often absent the consolation of their loved ones. We must salute millions of people who tried to follow the rules in this period of distress and disruption, navigating through unknown risks, lost jobs, social distancing, upended careers, wrecked businesses, Zoom classrooms, gallons of hand sanitizer, and confusion about times and dates.

We’ve said plenty about the foibles and failures of political leaders, including a president who mused about injecting disinfectant, but let’s take a moment to express profound thanks for the remarkable work of scientists who confronted the most grave disease threat in a century and forged an effective response. The extraordinary mRNA vaccines by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech are based on years of foundational research by dedicated researchers who were far from the limelight. Add to their innovation the extremely rapid vaccine development and manufacturing efforts of 2020, bringing these and other vaccines to the front lines in a span of months, plus the onslaught of revealing studies about the virus, its genetics and behavior, down to the tip of its spike protein, and one must conclude we live in an age of truly wondrous biomedical advances.

The CDC announcement that fully vaccinated people “can resume activities that you did prior to the pandemic” should serve as an incentive to get vaccinated. The shot is free, and the payoff is handsome; aside from protection against a potentially deadly infection, you get your smile back. We share concern that some unvaccinated people may be tempted to recklessly abandon face masks, and there will be no way of verifying who is who. They will endanger themselves and others who are unvaccinated. Even while putting face masks away, we must not discard the hard lessons of the past year about the need for care in enclosed areas with crowds.

Dark clouds still hover, mostly abroad. The virus is infecting millions of people in South Asia, Latin America and elsewhere. This could generate dangerous new variants. How long vaccine protection will last is unknown. The vaccines are only trickling into the lowest-income countries. Knock-on effects — other diseases neglected — will return to plague the world in the months and years ahead. We are still unprepared for the next big one.

But it is possible to think today what hardly seemed possible in the depths of January — this is the beginning of the end.

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