America’s mask mandate is gone — for the fully vaccinated


“If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said Thursday, adding: “We have all longed for this moment when we can get back to some sense of normalcy.” US President Joe Biden praised the CDC’s announcement, calling it “a great milestone, a great day,” as he removed his mask, making a point to smile and telling others to do so.

The new guidelines add to a series of major announcements demonstrating how America is racing towards a post-pandemic life, including authorizing vaccines for people as young as 12 and a call from the second-largest teachers’ union to reopen schools this fall. But the CDC’s decision also comes as a surprise to many, including some public health experts who had predicted that masks might be part of our lives for the long haul. Now, everyone from employers to restaurant owners to local government officials is scrambling to understand how to react, especially as there is still no system for distinguishing between those who are vaccinated and those who aren’t — and fewer than half of adults in the US (46%) are fully vaccinated, according to CDC data.

How to manage this next phase remains a big question, including persuading the people who remain hesitant to get vaccinated (or have no intention of ever getting a shot). Last month the Biden administration said there were no plans to introduce a federal “vaccine passport” or require vaccines for travelers or businesses. But some states and companies have plowed ahead with their own versions. New York became the first state to issue a digital vaccine passport last month, testing IBM’s Excelsior Pass app that displays a personalized QR code verifying vaccine status at two sporting events. Internationally, the European Union has proposed a “Digital Green Certificate” that will allow those vaccinated or possessing antibodies from having had the virus to travel freely — with negative tests also used to qualify. In Israel, vaccinated citizens are already using a “green pass” to enjoy everyday activities like going to the gym, dining inside busy restaurants and attending crowded events.

Critics of such “vaccine passports” point to privacy concerns and overreach by authorities, including the governors of Florida and Texas, who have signed executive orders banning them, signaling that the next phase of the vaccine culture wars is afoot.

But for the Biden administration the path back to “normalcy” is clear-cut. Writing on Twitter Thursday, the President said: “The rule is now simple: get vaccinated or wear a mask until you do. The choice is yours.”

YOU ASKED. WE ANSWERED.

Q: My child is too young to be vaccinated. Will they still need to wear masks?

A: Children too young to be vaccinated will still have to wear masks when they are indoors and around others, even if older kids and adults are free to take off face protection once they are fully vaccinated, says Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Right now, 12- to 15-year-olds can get vaccinated with Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine. And drug makers are also testing vaccines in younger children — in groups such as 6-9-year-olds, and 2-6-year-olds as well as infants and toddlers, Fauci said. The drug makers will soon ask the US Food and Drug Administration to authorize or approve vaccinating those younger age groups.

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WHAT’S IMPORTANT TODAY

UK changes tack on vaccination program as cases of the B.1.617 Covid-19 variant rise rapidly

The number of UK cases of the B.1.617 Covid-19 variant has more than doubled in a week, from 520 to 1,313. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Thursday his government was “anxious” about the strain, which was first identified in India. Evidence suggests that B.1.617 may be more transmissible than other strains and it appears to be fueling a crippling second Covid-19 wave in India. It has spread to more than 40 countries, according to the World Health Organization, which says the UK has reported more cases of the variant and its sublineages than any other nation outside India.

The UK government’s scientific advisers met Thursday to discuss the variant amid concerns it could jeopardize England’s plan to lift all legal limits on social contact from June 21. England enters the second phase of its plan to lift restrictions on Monday, when indoor dining can resume. Johnson said he remained “cautiously optimistic” about plans to drop restrictions but his government was “ruling nothing out.”

To tackle the spread of the variant, the UK’s vaccine minister announced that health officials will “flex” their vaccination rollout according to clinical advice. Younger people in the most-affected areas, which currently include northwest England and London, could be vaccinated sooner than scheduled, minister Nadhim Zahawi said Friday. Officials could also shorten the time gap between vaccinations, he added.

India’s Modi speaks out on the crippling second wave

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi finally addressed the devastation that the second wave has inflicted, marking the first time in three weeks that he has publicly addressed the crisis. Hospitals have run out of oxygen and medicine, while rural states and far-flung villages have been left without access to care. The country has recorded more than 24 million cases, with the daily number of deaths exceeding 3,000 for weeks.

“In front of us is an invisible enemy and this enemy has many faces,” Modi said Friday, adding, “because of coronavirus, we have lost a lot of our loved ones.” In a national address in April, the PM insisted the country should not go into lockdown despite a surge in cases, fueling intense criticism for Modi and his government’s preparation, subsequent handling and response to the second wave.

Cheerleading his government’s steps in tackling the surge, Modi said “India is not a country which loses hope. Neither India nor any Indian will lose hope. We will fight and win.” He announced that Covid hospitals “are being constructed quickly,” and that oxygen plants are planned in “far-flung” areas with the assistance of oxygen trains. Regarding the vaccination program, Modi asked Indians to get a dose when their turn comes, saying that more that 180 million vaccine doses have so far been administered. But with a population of 1.3 billion, that number equates to just a fraction of the population, and this week, multiple states have had to partially suspend their vaccine rollout due to shortages.

Tokyo Olympics in question as growing chorus of voices say it’s time to call off the Games

The CEO of Japan’s leading e-commerce company, Rakuten, has said hosting the Olympics this summer would be a “suicide mission” and scored the Japanese government a “2 out of 10” for its handling of the pandemic. Hiroshi Mikitani says he has been trying to convince the government to cancel the Games but had been so far unsuccessful. His comments came as more than 352,000 Japanese citizens have signed a petition calling for the Tokyo Olympics to be canceled.

A doctor’s union in Japan also joined those voices on Friday, urging the government to stop the event. In a letter, union head Naoto Ueyama cautioned that the Games could become a superspreader event as tens of thousands of athletes, coaches, officials and journalists come to Japan from around the world. The union said even without spectators, the event could lead to the circulation of vaccine-resistant variants. “It is impossible to hold a safe and secure Olympic Games in Corona,” wrote Ueyama. Other companies have also raised concerns, with SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son saying he was “afraid” both for Japan and other countries should the Tokyo Olympics go ahead as planned on July 23. Toyota, one of the leading sponsors of the Games has said it’s “concerned” with the amount of public frustration being directed at athletes.

Meanwhile the United States’ track and field team announced on Wednesday it had canceled its pre-Olympic training camp in Japan, citing uncertainty around the competition.

ON OUR RADAR

Approximately 4 million mink in Denmark were buried in mass graves on military land last year.
  • Denmark plans to burn millions of dead mink that have been excavated from mass graves over concerns the carcasses could pollute nearby waterways. Around 4 million mink were culled in the autumn and buried in military grounds over concerns the animals could spread Covid-19 after the virus was found on more than 200 mink farms.
  • The Australian health minister said the country is in talks with US drugmaker Moderna to produce its Covid-19 vaccine domestically, saying that “onshore manufacturing would ensure a secure, long-term supply.” This comes after Australia purchased 25 million doses of Moderna’s vaccine, including 10 million doses to be delivered this year and 15 million doses of booster shots in 2022.
  • Nepal’s leader K.P. Sharma Oli was reappointed Prime Minister Thursday after losing a vote of confidence earlier in the week as a second wave of Covid-19 ravages the country.
  • The Biden administration will invest $7.4 billion to recruit and hire public health workers to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic and prepare for future public health challenges.
  • Eight members of the New York Yankees tested positive for Covid-19 after taking the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Here’s how that could happen.

TODAY’S TOP TIP

The FDA extended its emergency use authorization for the vaccine in 12- to 15-year-olds on Monday to the delight of many parents waiting to get their children vaccinated. But if you have questions about your child and the shot, your pediatrician can best answer them.

The youth-take up remains an important element of the overall vaccination drive. That’s because people aged 12 to 17 remain at risk for severe illness, according to Dr. Sara Oliver of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Disease, who reports that that there have been over 1.5 million reported cases and over 13,000 hospitalizations to date among that age group.

Oliver, who briefed the agency’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices on the risks and benefits of the vaccine, says that more children and teens have been hospitalized because of Covid-19 than for flu, according to a comparison of hospitalization rates from past annual influenza epidemics. And teens and children are spreading the virus. As more adults are vaccinated, children and teens are accounting for a larger share of new infections, she said.

For more information on teens and the vaccine, read here.



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