New mask guidance for vaccinated individuals does not grant permission for widespread removal of masks, Centers of Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday.
"If they're vaccinated, they are safe. If they are not vaccinated, they are not safe. They should still be wearing a mask or better yet, get vaccinated," she told "This Week" co-anchor Martha Raddatz.
Since the new mask guidance was announced on Thursday, many states, local governments and businesses have updated their mask ordinances based on the CDC's recommendation that vaccinated individuals can be maskless indoors, outdoors or in large crowds. The guidelines still call for masks to be worn on public transportation and in homeless shelters, hospitals and prisons.
Some states, including California, Hawaii, Massachusetts and New York, are keeping their universal mask mandates intact.
As late as Tuesday, Walensky and other health officials were still recommending universal mask wearing during a hearing on Capitol Hill.
"When it was finally announced on Thursday it came as a huge surprise. It left some administration officials, doctors, businesses off guard. So why so suddenly, and why did you not tell the Senate panel what you had decided?" Raddatz asked.
"During the past week we were making decisions," Walensky responded. "Our subject matter experts were working just as I was testifying in front of Congress."
Walensky and other U.S. health officials have stressed that their guidance is up to individuals to follow and if vaccinated people wish to continue wearing their masks they can.
"We wanted to deliver the science of the individual level, but we also understand that these decisions have to be made at the community's level," Walensky said.
The CDC is also facing criticism from some infectious disease specialists who are concerned that there is no way of knowing who is vaccinated -- leaving vulnerable populations, including some children who don't have the option of getting vaccinated, at risk if everyone decides to stop wearing masks.
"The challenge here is that not everybody is eligible for vaccination," Walensky told Raddatz. "We still have children under the age of 11 and they should obviously still be wearing masks. So, if you're unvaccinated, we are saying, wear a mask, continue to distance if you're unvaccinated and practice all of those mitigation strategies."
"Who is supposed to be the vaccination police?" Raddatz pressed. "You look at Costco and Walmart, these essential workers, what are they supposed to do? There again, there's a quarter of the country that says they will not get vaccinated."
"We are asking people to take their health into their own hands to get vaccinated, and if they don't, then they continue to be at risk," she said.
Raddatz also asked Walensky what the CDC knows about the "breakthrough" COVID-19 infections in eight vaccinated members of the New York Yankees.
"We're still working to understand what has happened in that," Walensky said. "I would consider that when you look at the details that I'm aware of, seven of those eight were completely asymptomatic. The eighth was a mild case."
"This is the vaccine working," Walensky continued. "You didn't get a severe infection. You didn't require a hospitalization. And most likely, those people were not transmitting to other people."