The slow but sure march toward normalcy continues as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week eased coronavirus guidelines for fully vaccinated Americans. What amounts to a small step in evolving guidance from federal health officials, however, should have been a great leap forward — both for the vaccinated and the vital effort to incentivize vaccination among the public.
As more people get immunized against a protracted viral pandemic, there’s an increased demand among the vaccinated for expert guidance on just which parts of their pre-COVID life they can claw back. The CDC’s new recommendations, for example, say that vaccinated people can share maskless, indoor visits with those at low risk for severe disease. That’s a welcome boon for many grandparents who, if fully vaccinated, can have relatively normal visits with healthy children and grandchildren once again.
Some medical experts, however, find the guidance still too limiting. The pandemic’s grim toll has certainly warranted erring on the side of caution in the past, especially before vaccine availability. The guidelines still recommend that large indoor gatherings are risky even for vaccinated people, that unvaccinated people from different households shouldn’t mingle indoors, that we can’t yet completely do away with masking — all sound propositions. But the new recommendations say nothing about easing conditions for relatively lower-risk activities by vaccinated people, such as travel or going to restaurants, an approach that errs on the side of too timid instead of too risky, according to some public health professionals.
The guidance the CDC put out Monday is “far too cautious,” said Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University.
This doesn’t just mean unnecessary strictures on those who’ve received their shots. As Dr. Wen points out, health officials missed a critical opportunity to get more Americans vaccinated. To truly put the coronavirus behind us requires a thorough and successful vaccination campaign that brings the country to herd immunity — not just development and distribution of vaccines but actually getting shots in arms. Yet in Massachusetts, for instance, a poor vaccine rollout is incentivizing many people in the wrong direction, with some throwing their hands up after multiple failed attempts at securing an appointment.
The way to push the incentive in the right direction is to tie vaccination status to reopening guidance. Everybody is tired of this pandemic and its deleterious effects on our social lives and local economies. Health officials at every level should be drilling it into Americans’ heads that vaccination is the portal through which we escape this protracted nightmare and getting the jab is the most important step toward the normalcy we so deeply desire. That means the CDC — as well as the state Department of Health and similar entities — should be easing restrictions on travel and other activities for vaccinated people.
The last year has been a hard lesson in risk management, but COVID risk absolutism is an unsustainable path. Right now the biggest risk to mitigate is not enough people getting vaccinated.