CDC lifts mask guidance for fully vaccinated people — but less than 1/3 of Texans are fully vaccinated

A COVID-19 safety sign in Austin on June 24, 2020.
A COVID-19 safety sign in Austin on June 24, 2020.

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

Federal health officials reversed course on Thursday and advised that people who are fully vaccinated can stop wearing masks and observing social distancing in most indoor and outdoor settings.

It’s welcome news for many who have grown weary of the safety precautions more than 14 months into the global public health crisis and is a significant milestone in returning to pre-pandemic life. But the announcement will likely give new life to the debate about requiring vaccinations that has been playing out in Texas and across the nation — and it comes as less than a third of Texans are fully vaccinated.

“We have all longed for this moment,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said from the White House on Thursday. “If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic.”

But Walensky cautioned that the CDC’s guidance comes with exceptions. Vaccinated people should continue to wear masks and distance themselves from others in medical settings and around high-risk populations, such as doctor’s offices, hospitals and long-term care facilities, and while traveling aboard airplanes, busses and trains. Incarcerated people and people in homeless shelters should also continue to observe safety precautions.

In Texas, the rules around masks will stay the same. The state was one of the first to drop the requirement that masks be worn when in public. Gov. Greg Abbott in early March rescinded the state’s mask mandate — first implemented in July amid a wave of COVID-19 infections — as well as most other restrictions, including occupancy and operating limits for all businesses, restaurants, bars, concerts and sporting events.

Under Abbott’s order, private businesses may still require customers to wear masks. Many, particularly in the state’s large metropolitan areas, have continued to do so. The CDC’s guidance noted that people should still wear masks where local governments, private businesses and workplaces require them.

Abbott in April signed an executive order that barred state agencies from requiring people receive the injection, but the measure does not apply to private businesses.

At the Texas Capitol, state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, is pushing a bill that would strengthen Abbott’s order and ban so-called “vaccine passports.” Senate Bill 968 would prohibit businesses from requiring customers show documentation of their vaccination status “on entry to, to gain access to, or to receive service from the business.” Companies that chose not to comply with the law would be barred from receiving state grants or contracts. The measure was approved by the state Senate but is still pending in a House committee.

More than 11 million Texans have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as of Tuesday, according to state data. Nearly 31% of the state’s residents are fully vaccinated. But the rate at which Texas is vaccinating its residents has slowed despite ample supply. An April poll by the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune found that 36% of Texans said they were either reluctant to receive the vaccine or would refuse to get it, including nearly half of the state’s Republicans.

Peter Hotez, a preeminent infectious disease expert and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, said on Twitter that he supported the announcement, but that it carries a risk in places like Texas.

“COVID19 immunization rates in my part of the country, TX + South, are still lagging the rest of the nation, so I worry about a 5th wave this summer in the South like last summer,” he said.

The CDC on Wednesday gave the green light for the vaccine from drugmaker Pfizer to be used on children ages 12 to 15. The vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson and Johnson had previously been authorized for use in people 16 and older. None of the vaccines are authorized for children younger than 12.

State health officials also announced Thursday that children will not be required to get the COVID-19 shot before returning to school, as the Texas Department of State Health Services does with vaccines for diseases such as measles and polio.

Some school districts have elected to keep their mask requirements in place. The Texas Education Agency in March left the decision to local school districts.