Rochelle Walensky

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky speaks to the press after visiting the Hynes Convention Center FEMA Mass Vaccination Site on March 30, 2021, in Boston. (Erin Clark/Pool/Getty Images/TNS)

Federal officials on Thursday announced a sweeping relaxation of face mask guidelines, including allowing fully vaccinated people to safely stop wearing masks in most places.

"Anyone who is fully vaccinated can participate in indoor and outdoor activities, large or small, without wearing a mask or physical distancing," Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said during a White House briefing. "If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things you have stopped doing because of the pandemic."

Calling it an "exciting and powerful moment," Walensky said the decision was made based on numerous reports and literature that have demonstrated the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines.

"We have all longed for this moment when can get back to some sense of normalcy," she said.

Masks are still required for everyone traveling on public transportation, including buses, trains, airports and stations.

The announcement comes amid mounting public pressure nationwide and in California, where nearly 50% of the population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and coronavirus case rates have dropped dramatically. Earlier this month, the state recorded its lowest hospitalization rate since the first few weeks of the pandemic.

The Biden administration and the CDC in recent weeks also faced pressure to ease guidelines to make the benefits of vaccination abundantly clear, emphasizing the extent to which those who are inoculated can return to an almost-normal life.

The science also remains clear around unvaccinated people, who "remain at risk of mild or severe illness, of death or of spreading the disease to others," Walensky said. Unvaccinated people should still wear masks and get vaccinated right away.

Those who develop symptoms should also put their masks back on and get tested right away, officials said.

Walensky said the agency also will be updating all of its guidance — including for travel —  but that decisions about businesses, schools and other settings where it may be hard to determine who is or is not vaccinated will likely be determined at a local level.

"The country is very heterogeneous; it is not uniform," she said. "I would encourage counties and localities to look at how much vaccine they have, how many people have been vaccinated, look at how many cases are in their area, and to make those decision with that information in mind."

The debate around face masks came just days after the CDC updated its COVID-19 science brief to emphasize the virus' airborne transmissibility. Transmission occurs in three main ways, the agency affirmed. They are the inhalation of aerosol particles; deposition of virus droplets onto mucous membranes such as the mouth, nose and eyes; and touching mucous membranes with "soiled hands contaminated with the virus."

In April, the CDC loosened its guidelines around outdoor face masks, but not everyone was quick to make the change.

"It's been ingrained in us over the last year," Northridge, California, resident Aaron Lemos, 54, said earlier this week. "Would I like to not wear a mask? Yes. But for the sake of my family and community, I feel I should still wear it."

On Thursday, Walensky noted that people with compromised immune systems should speak to their doctors before giving up their masks.

"If things get worse, there is always a chance we may need to make a change to these recommendations," Walensky said, "but we know that the more people are vaccinated, the less cases we will have and the less chance of a new spike or additional variant emerging."

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