MONDAY, March 8, 2021 (Healthday News) -- New social distancing guidance released by the federal government on Monday gives fully vaccinated Americans more freedom to socialize and move through their communities.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said people who are two weeks past their final shot can safely visit indoors with unvaccinated members of a single household at low risk of severe disease without wearing masks or social distancing. That recommendation would free many vaccinated grandparents who live near their unvaccinated children and grandchildren to gather for the first time since the pandemic began a year ago.
The CDC also said fully vaccinated people can gather indoors with those who are also fully vaccinated, and they do not need to be quarantined or tested after exposure to COVID-19.
"We know that people want to get vaccinated so they can get back to doing the things they enjoy with the people they love," CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in an agency news release. "There are some activities that fully vaccinated people can begin to resume now in their own homes. Everyone – even those who are vaccinated – should continue with all mitigation strategies when in public settings. As the science evolves and more people get vaccinated, we will continue to provide more guidance to help fully vaccinated people safely resume more activities."
Some restrictions were still advised, even for the vaccinated. For example, if a vaccinated person lives in a group setting and is around someone with COVID-19, he or she should still stay away from others for 14 days and get tested, even without symptoms.
Peter Hotez, co-director of the Texas Children's Center for Vaccine Development, welcomed the new guidelines, but added they have been too long in coming.
"The sooner we move to telling people if you're fully vaccinated, you don't have to wear masks -- that will be an incentive for people to get vaccinated," Hotez told the Washington Post.
Other experts agreed.
"I'm disappointed this was not done sooner," said Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease expert at the University of California, San Francisco. As a clinician, she said she has been bombarded with questions from patients about what they can and cannot do. Recently, to console a profoundly depressed patient, she told him it was safe for both of them to take off their masks and hug. "I sat with him and looked him in the face," she recalled. "It meant a lot to him."
The level of caution people need to exercise should be determined by the characteristics of those who are unvaccinated in a social setting, the CDC said. For instance, if a fully vaccinated person visits an unvaccinated friend who is 70, and therefore at risk of severe disease, the visit should also take place outdoors, with masks and physical distancing, the guidance says.
Advocates for older people embraced the new guidance, because many older people, especially those who live alone, have spent the past year in virtual isolation, they said.
Bill Walsh, vice president for communications for AARP, said that, "To the extent this allows people, grandkids, families, loved ones in nursing homes or assisted living [to interact], we welcome that," he added. "We've heard over the past year some heart-wrenching stories of family separation."
After Helen Boucher, an infectious diseases doctor at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, was vaccinated in December, she visited her in-laws, who are 88 and 90 and had received their first shot two and-a half weeks before. Still wearing a mask, Boucher brought them kielbasa, macaroni and cheese, and a box of chocolates.
"I felt good that I could bring them stuff," Boucher said, though she wanted to make sure she didn't put them at risk.
The pace of vaccinations in the United States has been accelerating in recent weeks, with more than 58 million Americans having received one shot and nearly 31 million people now fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.
Restrictions should stay until daily cases are below 10,000: Fauci
Coronavirus restrictions in public spaces should not be lifted until the daily toll of new U.S. cases falls below 10,000, "and maybe even considerably less than that," Dr. Anthony Fauci said last week.
The last time the United States saw that low a number was almost a year ago. The daily case count hasn't fallen below 50,000 since mid-October, CNN reported.
Even so, some states have begun to ease restrictions, including doing away with mask mandates, allowing businesses to fully open and increasing the number of people allowed at mass gatherings.
Those announcements came as health experts warned that the spread of more infectious variants could send U.S. infection rates soaring again.
Of particular concern is the B.1.1.7 variant which was first discovered in the U.K. The so-called British variant has now been found in 49 U.S. states, as well as in Puerto Rico and Washington, DC. As of Friday, there were 3,037 cases of the variant in this country, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A person with the variant can infect 43% to 90% more people than the older versions of the virus, new research from scientists at the Centre for Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine shows, CNN reported.
In a statement, the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) said the United States must continue to use masks, social distance, wash hands and avoid large gatherings.
"We can't forget the lessons this pandemic has taught us or its terrible toll, and we must not relinquish the ground we've gained," said Dr. Barbara Alexander, the president of ISDA.
CD Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said last week that state officials must continue to emphasize the importance of wearing masks for the foreseeable future, and "encourage everyone to roll up their sleeve for the vaccine when it's available to them."
A global scourge
By Monday, the U.S. coronavirus case count passed 29 million while the death toll passed 524,600, according to a Times tally. On Monday, the top five states for coronavirus infections were: California with nearly 3.6 million cases; Texas with nearly 2.7 million cases; Florida with over 1.9 million cases; New York with nearly 1.7 million cases; and Illinois with more than 1.2 million cases.
Curbing the spread of the coronavirus in the rest of the world remains challenging.
In India, the coronavirus case count was over 11.2 million by Monday, a Johns Hopkins University tally showed. Brazil had over 11 million cases and more than 265,000 deaths as of Monday, the Hopkins tally showed.
Worldwide, the number of reported infections passed 116.9 million on Monday, with nearly 2.6 million deaths recorded, according to the Hopkins tally.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on the new coronavirus.
SOURCES: The New York Times; Washington Post; CNN