with Alexandra Ellerbeck

New scientific findings — not outside pressure from experts and the media — drove the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to release fresh guidance that fully vaccinated Americans can mostly stop mask-wearing and social distancing, the agency's director Rochelle Walensky insisted yesterday.

Yet when the CDC released much stricter guidance just two weeks ago — to a chorus of complaints — there was already solid evidence that vaccinated people almost never transmit the virus to others.

The new CDC guidance says vaccinated people can now mostly return to normal life.

Those who are fully vaccinated can go without masks or physical distancing in most cases, even when they are indoors or in large groups, federal officials said Thursday, paving the way for a full reopening of society.

“The change represents a huge shift symbolically and practically for pandemic-weary Americans, millions of whom have lived with the restrictions for more than a year,” The Post's Yasmeen Abutaleb and Laurie McGinley write. “A growing number have complained they cannot do more even after being fully vaccinated and criticized the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of being overly cautious.”

Niels Lesniewski, chief correspondent for CQ Roll Call:

“We have all longed for this moment when we can get back to some sense of normalcy,” Walensky said at a briefing. 

“Based on the continuing downward trajectory of cases, the scientific data on the performance of our vaccines and our understanding of how the virus spreads, that moment has come for those who are fully vaccinated,” she added.

Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health:

The announcement elicited cheers from lawmakers as they demasked. Alex Bolton, staff writer for the Hill:

Nicholas Fandos, congressional correspondent for the New York Times:

President Biden strolled out of the White House with a triumphant demeanor – and no mask.

He declared the country on the precipice of defeating the pandemic, Matt Viser and Annie Linskey write.

"I’ve said many times: As tough as this pandemic has been, we will get through it,” Biden said, appearing alongside a maskless Vice President Harris in the Rose Garden. “We will rebuild our economy, reclaim our lives and get back to normal. We’ll laugh again. We’ll know joy again. We’ll smile again — and now, see one another’s smile.”

Data on vaccine performance has been around for a while.

Multiple studies found that fully vaccinated people carry only a minuscule risk of becoming infected with the coronavirus and passing it along to others. Here are a few:

  • Published Feb. 18: The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines protected 31,069 Mayo Clinic and affiliated health system workers from getting the coronavirus in 88.7 percent of cases.
  • March 23: Out of 8,121 fully vaccinated workers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, four contracted the virus.
  • March 23: UCLA researchers estimated the risk of testing positive for the virus after vaccination was 1.19 percent for health-care workers at UC San Diego Health and 0.97 percent at UCLA Health.
  • April 2: The mRNA vaccines were found 90 percent effective in 3,950 vaccinated health-care personnel, first responders and other essential workers in eight U.S. locations.
  • April 21: Out of 417 fully vaccinated people at Rockefeller University, there were two women with breakthrough infections.
That’s one reason the CDC got so much pushback for its April 27 guidance.

As we wrote at the time, that guidance seemed too conservative to a number of experts. While the chance of breakthrough infections is tiny, according to numbers posted on the agency’s own website, the CDC still recommended fully vaccinated people continue to practice masking and social distancing in indoor public spaces as well as crowded outdoor spaces.

A number of other reporters wrote similar pieces, criticizing the CDC’s interpretation of evidence on whether the virus spreads outdoors and noting the agency’s slowness in updating guidelines based on the latest scientific findings.

But Walensky said the new guidance doesn’t stem from the criticism.

She also denied that the agency was trying to create more incentives for still-unvaccinated Americans to get the shots — although she acknowledged the new guidance could help persuade more of the vaccine-hesitant.

“While this may serve as incentive for some people to get vaccinated, that is not our purpose here,” she said. “The science demonstrates that if you’re fully vaccinated, you’re protected.” 

Members of the media celebrated. The Post's Annie Linskey:

Others got snarky. The Post's Dave Weigel:

CNN correspondent Omar Jimenez:

Karen Tumulty, columnist for The Post:

The Onion poked fun, too:

Vaccinated people must still mask up on airplaces, buses, trains or other public transportation.

The relaxed rules also don't apply to health-care settings, or where state or local restrictions still require them, Walensky said. Officials also noted that some business settings may continue requiring masks, especially since some workers may remain unvaccinated.

“The CDC director urged those who are immune-compromised to speak with their doctors before giving up their masks, and said that those who are not vaccinated remain at risk for mild or severe illness and death and should still wear masks,” Yasmeen and Laurie write.

The updated guidance…means that millions of fully vaccinated Americans can begin returning to pre-pandemic activities, including in-person school and work, which many have eschewed since March 2020,” they add. "Individuals are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after the one-dose Johnson & Johnson shot, or two weeks after the second dose of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines.

The vaccines are doing what they're supposed to do.

“In part as a result of accelerating vaccinations, the country is seeing the lowest number of new daily cases it has had in eight months, and deaths have decreased from a high of about 3,000 per day on average in January to about 600 per day, as many of the most vulnerable, including the elderly, have been inoculated," my colleagues note.

Ahh, oof and ouch

AHH: The White House announced it will spend $7.4 billion to hire more public health workers.

“The funds could give a much-needed boost to America’s crumbling public health infrastructure. After decades of chronic underfunding, U.S. public health departments last year showed how ill-equipped they are to carry out basic functions, let alone serve as the last line of defense against the most acute threat to the nation’s health in generations,” The Post’s William Wan reports.

The money will come from the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package that Congress passed last month. The Biden administration said $4.4 billion will go toward boosting states’ public health departments and expanding the Epidemic Intelligence Service at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The remaining $3 billion will create a grant program to train and modernize the country’s public health workforce. Grant applicants will be asked to prioritize hiring from the communities that they serve.

“In the years before the pandemic struck, local public health agencies had lost almost a quarter of their overall workforce since 2008 — a reduction of almost 60,000 workers, according to national associations of health officials. The agencies’ main source of federal funding — the CDC’s emergency preparedness budget — had been cut 30 percent since 2003,” William writes.

OOF: Missouri’s Medicaid expansion will not go forward after the legislature denied it funding.

After 53 percent of Missouri voters approved a 2020 ballot initiative to add Medicaid expansion to the state’s constitution, it appeared that the state was on track to extend safety-net insurance to an estimated 275,000 low-income residents. But the state legislature refused to fund the expansion, and Gov. Mike Parson (R) announced on Thursday that the state would drop the expansion given the lack of funding, the Kansas City Star's Jeanne Kuang reports.

“Without a revenue source or funding authority from the General Assembly, we are unable to proceed with the expansion at this time,” the governor said in a statement.

The decision disappointed expansion supporters, who had hoped Parson would still allow the enrollment in July. Those supporters are backing a lawsuit aimed at forcing the state to expand Medicaid. Both Republicans and Democrats have acknowledged that the future of the program will now be determined by the courts.

“When this issue is inevitably litigated in court, I hope — and expect — the courts will force the Governor and State legislature to follow the rule of law,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Democrat who represents Kansas City in Congress.

Kaiser Family Foundation's Larry Levitt noted the Biden administration has provided states with financial incentive to expand Medicaid:

OUCH: Rebekah Jones claimed a conspiracy to manipulate coronavirus data in Florida, but there were holes in her story.

Jones, a former dashboard manager at the Florida Department of Health, claimed last May that she was directed to manipulate coronavirus data as part of an effort to play down the impact of the virus. She was fired just days after making the explosive claim. Late last year, law enforcement agents raided Jones’s home as part of an investigation into a data breach at the health department.

The National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke points out that Jones initially told the Associated Press she was not alleging any tampering with data on deaths, hospitalizations or cases. But later, she claimed that Florida’s deputy secretary of health, Shamarial Roberson, “asked me to go into the raw data and manually alter figures.”

“This, of course, is preposterous—not least because it flies directly in the face of Jones’s initial story,” Charles writes. “In her role as the manager of the dashboard, Jones did not have the ability to edit the raw data.”

Jones’s report of the raid on her house also conflicts with body-camera footage from police officers. She claimed on Twitter that officers pointed a gun at her face, but the video shows police waiting outside her home for 22 minutes, encouraging Jones to come talk to them at the door.

More in coronavirus news

The coronavirus variant fueling India’s crisis is spreading around the globe.

“It is not clear to what degree the crisis in India — which reported 4,200 deaths on Wednesday alone — has been accelerated by the emergence of this variant, known as B.1.617. It is possible the main driver of the outbreak has been mass gatherings in a densely populated nation that still has low levels of vaccination,” The Post’s Joel Achenbach reports. “But the WHO, which previously categorized the variant as being ‘of interest,’ Monday elevated it to the status ‘of concern.’ ”

After being on the front lines in U.S. hospitals, Dr. Harman Boparai returned India to help fight the second wave there. (Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)

Some scientists have pointed to preliminary evidence that the variant could be more transmissible, although they caution that the data is limited. Researchers are conducting laboratory tests and examining epidemiological data to determine whether the variant spreads more easily, causes more serious illness or has the potential to evade vaccines.

Although the World Health Organization treats B.1.617 as a single variant, it has already splintered into three sub-lineages with different sets of mutations. Britain has declared one of those, B.1.617.2, a variant of concern. That variant accounts for about 3 percent of cases in the United States.

A sizable group of Americans want coronavirus shots but haven’t gotten them yet.

“According to a new U.S. census estimate, some 30 million American adults who are open to getting a coronavirus vaccine have not managed to actually do so. Their ranks are larger than the hesitant — more than the 28 million who said they would probably or definitely not get vaccinated, and than the 16 million who said they were unsure. And this month, as the Biden administration set a goal of 70 percent of adults getting at least one dose by July 4, they became an official new focus of the nation’s mass vaccination campaign,” the New York Times’s Amy Harmon and Josh Holder report.

Interviews suggest a diverse range of reasons for why these people have not been vaccinated. Many are working-class and have family and job obligations that leave them with little free to schedule or receive a shot. Some face language barriers or have disabilities that make it harder for them to access a vaccine. Others worry that they can’t afford to take time off work if they have side effects. 

Health officials have closed many mass vaccination sites because of low turnout. Now they are looking to reach people at festivals, grocery store parking lots, doctors’ offices and churches.

Sugar rush