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Unvaccinated People Are Most at Risk by Unmasking, C.D.C. Director Says

The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, facing blowback over the agency’s new liberalized mask guidelines, offered a stark reassurance on Sunday: Only unvaccinated people are at risk if they take off their masks.

“If you are vaccinated, we are saying you are safe, you can take up your mask and you are not at risk of severe disease or hospitalization from Covid-19,” the C.D.C. director, Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, said on “Fox News Sunday.” “If you are not vaccinated, you are not safe. Please go get vaccinated or continue to wear your mask.”

The guidance the C.D.C. issued on Thursday said that it was no longer necessary for fully vaccinated people to mask or maintain social distance in many settings. The change set off days of public confusion and drew objections from some local officials and labor unions, including the country’s largest union of registered nurses. A number of major U.S. retailers have already lifted mask requirements, essentially turning to an honor system that relies on unvaccinated people to keep their masks on in public.

In her round of the Sunday news shows on major networks, Dr. Walensky revealed a subtle but marked shift in her agency’s emphasis from community to individual protection. She acknowledged on Fox that “for 16 months, we’ve been telling people to be cautious, be careful, cases are going up” and made clear that the C.D.C.’s new bottom line is that individuals could make their own choices.

She also noted that communities where cases are high should consider keeping mask requirements, and that children who are not vaccinated — including everyone under 12 because they are not yet eligible for the shot — and people with compromised immune systems should keep their faces covered.

“This was not permission to shed masks for everybody everywhere,” Dr. Walensky said on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” but about “individual assessment of your risk.”

On a practical level, jurisdictions, including communities, schools and employers, look to the C.D.C., the nation’s top public health agency, for guidance as they set policy. The new recommendations create the possibility that there will be an increasing number of unmasked people in public venues with no certainty that they have the benefit of vaccination.

In her TV appearances, Dr. Walensky rejected the idea that pressure from a public and elected officials frustrated by more than a year of pandemic restrictions had prompted the new guidance, saying that it stemmed entirely from evolving science that shows the vaccines protect not just against getting severely ill from the coronavirus and its variants but also against spreading them.

The unvarnished message underscored the C.D.C.’s urgency to get the vaccine to more people. “Please go get vaccinated or continue to wear your mask,” Dr. Walensky said on Fox. She even dipped into details about how people can find where to get vaccinated, turning the discussion into a kind of public service message.

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