Dr. Scott Gottlieb, who headed the Food and Drug Administration from 2017 to 2019, said Thursday the federal government should consider loosening its guidelines on indoor mask wearing as Covid cases drop and vaccinations rise, arguing it will give officials credibility to reimpose strict rules if cases spike later this year — but federal health officials still say it’s safer to wear masks indoors.
Gottlieb told CNBC the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can start discussing lifting its recommendation to wear masks indoors “right around now” because coronavirus cases have dropped nationwide for weeks and most adults are vaccinated (binding rules on mask-wearing are the province of state and local governments).
Gottlieb argued public health authorities should lift restrictions “as aggressively as we put them in,” because it might be necessary to reintroduce some social distancing measures if there are outbreaks this winter.
The CDC is encouraging Americans to wear masks indoors even if they’re vaccinated, and many public health experts say indoor settings present a higher risk of transmission than outdoor settings, so masks are still a sensible precaution while indoors.
Plus, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said last week masks are still recommended indoors because not everybody has gotten a vaccine shot and “it’s very hard to tease apart who is vaccinated.”
“We need to preserve the credibility of public health officials to perhaps reimplement some of these provisions as we get into next winter, if we do start seeing outbreaks again,” Gottlieb told CNBC’s Shepard Smith. “The only way to earn public credibility is to demonstrate that you’re willing to relax these provisions when a situation improves.”
The CDC has started to relax its guidelines as vaccination rates increase. The agency now says it’s safe for fully vaccinated people to gather indoors without masks and take domestic flights without quarantining, and it announced last week that vaccinated people don’t need to wear masks outdoors unless they’re in crowded spaces. Many states have also eased their restrictions in recent weeks, including indoor mask mandates.
Gottlieb isn’t the only health expert to argue indoor mask-wearing isn’t as necessary anymore. Dr. Leana Wen, Baltimore’s former health commissioner and a CNN regular, penned a Washington Post op-ed arguing vaccinated people who attended President Joe Biden’s address to Congress last week should’ve foregone masks. She said by wearing a mask to the event and enforcing social distancing in the House chamber, Biden “missed his biggest opportunity” to signal to Americans that vaccines are effective.