The CDC's new COVID guidance is good — but it could still be better

  • The CDC says you can hug your grandkids once you’re fully vaccinated, even if they aren’t.
  • (Which is important, since children can’t be vaccinated yet.)
  • The new guidance gives more latitude to the vaccinated — and more reason to get the vaccine.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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I wrote last week that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention needed to give guidance that told people more about what it is safe or safer to do once they have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. On Monday, the CDC released such guidance, and it’s pretty good.

Here’s what I like about it:

  • It tells people vaccines will let them see their grandchildren. I was worried the guidance would say vaccinated people should only drop the masks and the distancing in the presence of other vaccinated people, which would be a big problem since the vaccines are not yet approved for use in children. One of the biggest isolating factors about the pandemic is that it has separated elderly people who face significant risk from COVID from their grandchildren. The CDC now says interactions between vaccinated and unvaccinated people should be assessed based on the risk of the unvaccinated person(s). So long as your unvaccinated grandchild doesn’t have a high COVID risk factor — and neither does any other unvaccinated person in his or her household — you can hug them once your vaccine is fully effective, which is 14 days after the last dose.
  • It tells people to visit their friends. Of course, grandchildren are not the only unvaccinated people a vaccinated person might wish to see in close contact without wearing a mask. The CDC says it’s fine for vaccinated people to visit with one other household in this way, so long as the unvaccinated people in their household are not at high risk. Gather two or more such households, though, and the CDC is concerned the unvaccinated people will spread COVID to each other.
  • It does away with the “90-day” nonsense. Prior CDC guidance said fully vaccinated people could forego quarantine after a COVID exposure so long as they had received their final vaccine shot no less than 14 days ago and no more than 90 days ago. It is unlikely the COVID vaccines will provide lifetime protection, but there is (as the CDC admitted at the time) no reason to believe the vaccines work only for three months. Now, the CDC is leveling with the public. We’re still learning how long the vaccines work, and when we know more about this, this guidance might be adjusted, the CDC is basically saying with this guidance. But for now, the vaccines are all pretty recent, and they will count indefinitely until further notice.
  • It tells people to stay home if they’re sick. There is a small risk you can get COVID even if you’ve been vaccinated, so vaccinated people are told to keep considering COVID symptoms to be a possible sign of COVID infection and seek medical care (including testing) accordingly. Of course, if you have COVID symptoms and don’t have COVID, you could have another infectious disease. This is advice I’d like to see stick around well past the pandemic: Try not to give other people whatever it is you might have, even if it’s just a cold.
  • It acknowledges the importance of admitting how well the vaccines work. “Taking steps towards relaxing certain measures for vaccinated persons may help improve COVID-19 vaccine acceptance and uptake,” says the CDC. Yes. The old message that vaccines barely let you do anything new was bad. This message is better.

While there is a lot to like in the new guidelines, I’m still not crazy about a couple of aspects of the release.

It says you should keep wearing a mask in public situations where it’s been required, and I think that makes sense for a little while longer, but the CDC omits a key reason for this. Mask rules that apply only to the unvaccinated are unworkable, because people don’t know which other people they’re seeing in public have been vaccinated. Whatever we keep learning about vaccines and how they reduce the risk of asymptomatic transmission, wearing a mask in public indoor places where they are recommended will be a simple matter of tact until vaccines are available to everyone who wants one, which won’t be very long from now.

The guidance also doesn’t ease up at all on the suggestions about what vaccinated people can do in public, even as it significantly eases guidelines about activity in private homes. This might not be needed right now but it’s going to be needed pretty soon. The CDC already has risk-mitigation guidance about dining in restaurants even if you are not vaccinated, for example, and it’s intuitive that vaccines that sharply reduce COVID risks would lead people to apply that guidance differently.

As Suitsupply says, the new normal is coming, and while the average American might not be licking a model’s face anytime soon, they may already be going to restaurants and bars and multi-household gatherings at neighbors’ houses, especially if they’ve been vaccinated. The CDC is going to need to meet Americans approximately where they are, which will mean saying more about what vaccinated people can do at work, at school, and in other public places — if not now, pretty soon.

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