On Thursday, May 13th, the CDC released new masking guidelines for those who have received a full round of COVID-19 vaccination protection. Those who are fully vaccinated can now stop wearing masks or distancing, even indoors or in large gatherings. The Washington Post reports that 35% of Americans are now fully vaccinated, and the CDC offered evidence that the number of breakthrough infections is small, and that those are far less severe than regular COVID-19 cases; the vaccines are effective among even the most contagious strains circulating in the United States; and that this announcement “does not apply to airplanes, buses, trains and other public transportation, to health-care settings” or anywhere that still mandates masks. While many people are applauding, some aren’t happy — and that includes America’s largest nurses’ union.
National Nurses United, the largest union of registered RNs in the United States, immediately condemned the CDC’s new guidelines, saying in a public statement that, “This newest CDC guidance is not based on science, does not protect public health, and threatens the lives of patients, nurses, and other frontline workers across the country… This lack of protection compounds the dangers that nurses and other essential workers continue to face on the job.”
What Worries The Nurses’ Union
First, they’re concerned about COVID-19 numbers: their statement says we’re “still in the midst of the deadliest pandemic in a century.” On May 19th, The New York Times recorded just over 30,000 COVID-19 cases and 613 deaths — cases had plummeted 35% from two weeks prior, and deaths had dropped 13%. But while that sounds great, the US charted those same numbers in June (cases) and July (deaths). June and July saw many of us isolating in our homes. The nurses’ union is right: by the numbers, we’re still mid-pandemic.
Nurses are also worried about variants, which the CDC brushes off; Johns Hopkins says that B.1.351, which first appeared in South Africa, may have the ability to re-infect those who have already had COVID-19 and may be “somewhat resistant… to vaccines still in development.” The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine only provided minimal protection against infection, though COVID-19 only caused mild to moderate illness in those vaccinated. Moreover, B.1.1.7 variant from England seems to be more contagious than other variants. Variants could cause the virus to become more severe, more contagious, or both.
In a Reddit thread discussing the new mandates, nurses sounded off with their concerns.
The nurses’ union also says we don’t know “how well the vaccine prevents asymptomatic and mild” COVID-19 infections, and how long vaccine protection will last. Moreover, they say that preventing COVID-19’s spread requires “multiple layers of protective measures,” including masking, distancing, and vaccines — vaccines should only be one part in our plan to stop the pandemic’s spread.
The CDC maintains, according to Newsweek, that the new mask rules are based on science, and “now is the time.”
Fauci Weighs In…
But Fauci told Axios on Tuesday, May 19th that many Americans are misinterpreting the new CDC guidelines — making the nurses’ union sound much more persuasive. “I think people are misinterpreting, thinking that this is a removal of a mask mandate for everyone. It’s not… It’s an assurance to those who are vaccinated that they can feel safe, be they outdoors or indoors.”
So the CDC announcement was meant to reassure the vaccinated — not to tell Americans to throw out their masks, which most seem to be doing. “They are feeling that we’re saying: ‘You don’t need the mask anymore,'” Fauci said. “[The CDC] did not explicitly say that unvaccinated people should abandon their masks.”
It’s That Mask Abandonment People Worry About
While the nurses’ union doesn’t explicitly say it, Americans are clearly worried about unvaccinated people going maskless into society, where they can spread COVID-19 with impunity. Since mask-wearing has been so politicized, there’s widespread worry that antimaskers will simply go without, leading others to assume they’re vaccinated, which will pose a major risk to the immunocompromised, the elderly, and children too young to be vaccinated.
According a former senior policy advisor to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign,
My blood is boiling that @CDCgov acted so irresponsibly to adopt an “honor code” for public mask wearing. It’s not good public health advice to say to parents whose kids can’t get vaccinated, just trust the public to do the right thing with all the politicization over masks. 1/5
— Ann O'Leary (@Ann_OLeary) May 16, 2021
Moreover, the anti-vaccine crowd continuing to spread the virus increases the chances of mutation leading to the rise of variants. Those people also increase the chance of vaccine-resistant variants coming from other parts of the world, including India — making the nurses’ union’s case seem a lot more sound.
They could cause a spike in cases as well, which the CDC admits. They “[left] open the possibility that the restrictions could return should the pandemic worsen,” says The Washington Post. In other words: we could be making a huge mistake.
Essential Workers Stand With The Nurses’ Union
Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers, said to The Washington Post that yes, essential workers, who have the most contact with the public, come under greater risk with the new CDC guidelines — like the nurses’ union said. “Millions of Americans are doing the right thing and getting vaccinated, but essential workers are still forced to play mask police for shoppers who are unvaccinated and refuse to follow local COVID safety measures,” he said. “Are they now supposed to become the vaccine police?”
This becomes more complicated when several major retailers, including Wal-Mart, Cost-Co, Trader Joe’s, and Publix, have announced they will no longer require masks for vaccinated customers. Other stores, such as Home Depot and Target, still require masks for everyone, according to Axios.
If it were up to the nurses’ union, we’d all still be masking, especially to protect the elderly and other vulnerable populations. But many are simply fed up with anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers: