'This is not permission for widespread removal of masks': Dr. Rochelle Walensky

Martha Raddatz interviews Dr. Rochelle Walensky on "This Week."
7:07 | 05/16/21

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Transcript for 'This is not permission for widespread removal of masks': Dr. Rochelle Walensky
On Thursday, the CDC abruptly changing its mask guidance after more than 400 days, saying fully vaccinated Americans can go maskless indoors with a few exceptions. The surprise news an aboutface from the CDC shifting from a feeling of impending doom to cautious optimism, to relaxing mask guidance in just about a month and a half. With only about one-third of the country fully vaccinated, some states including California and New York still weighing whether to adopt the change. Businesses split on how to respond. The country grappling with concerns about how to enforce these new guidelines to keep all Americans safe. We'll dig into it all this morning beginning with CDC director Rochelle walensky who joins me now. Good morning, Dr. Walensky. It was just Tuesday when you sat before a senate committee and you were adamant then that masking and social distancing should remain in place, but "The Washington post" is reporting you already approved a decision to change the guidance. When it was finally announced on Thursday, it came as a huge surprise, and it left some administration officials, doctors and businesses off guard. Why so suddenly, and why did you not tell the senate panel what you had decided? Good morning. Thank you, Martha. Thanks for having me. The guidance, first of all, let's celebrate this moment. We're at a place in this pandemic. Cases have been coming down more than a third just in the last two weeks. We have vaxing now across this country widely available for anyone who wants it, and we now have science that has really just evolved even in the last two weeks that demonstrates that these vaccines are safe. They are effective, they are working and the population just as they did in the clinical trials that they are working against our variants that we have here circulating in the United States, and that if you were to develop an infection, even if you got vaccinated that you can transmit that infection to other people. Some of that science was really evolving as late as last Thursday, and one of the papers was published from the CDC just before yesterday. We were actively reviewing that science during the past week. We were making decisions and moving, and our subject matter experts were working just as I was testifying in front of congress, and those -- that was what was happening. I told the American people I would deliver the science as soon as we had it. You said on Friday that the CDC is empowering the American people to make their own decisions about their own health, but this is all on the honor system, and there are people who refuse to get vaccinated about, about a quarter of the country, and who oppose mask wearing who could see this as a green light to go wherever they want, putting others at risk, especially in those indoor settings, including children and the immunocompromised. So this is a really important point, and that is the guidance that we released on Thursday is about individuals and what individuals are at risk of doing if they are not vaccinated. 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. We also need to say that this is not permission for widespread removal of masks. For those who are vaccinated, it may take some time for them to feel comfortable removing their masks, but these decisions need - to be made at the jurisdictional level, the community level. Some communities have been hit harder than others, have lower vaccination rates than others. We wanted to deliver the science at the individual level, but we - also understand that these decisions have to be made at the community level. Let's talk about the unmasked and the unvaccinated. An infection disease specialist from Johns Hopkins told "The Washington post" there is no way to know who is vaccinated and who is not in most scenarios. The likely result is that almost no one will wear a mask. She went on to say that the risk to the unvaccinated would dramatically increase as most stop masking. Do you dispute that? What I would say is those unvaccinated people need to work to protect themselves, need to continue to mask, and better yet, need to get vaccinated. What we're asking our businesses to do as they are starting to think about the guidances about what this means for their workplaces is to make it easy for paid time off for their employees to get vaccinated. But covid is understood deniably still a threat, and the CDC has consistently shown us scientific evidence that says you are much safer if two people in a room have masks on. So if you are unvaccinated in that room and someone else comes the likely result is that almost no one will wear a mask. She went on to say that the risk to the unvaccinated would dramatically increase as most do you dispute that? What I would say is those unvaccinated people need to work to protect themselves, need to continue to mask, and better yet, need to get vaccinated. What we're asking our businesses to do as they are starting to think about the guidances about what this means for their workplaces is to make it easy for paid time off for their employees to get vaccinated. But covid is understood deniably still a threat, and the CDC has consistently shown us scientific evidence that says you are much safer if two people in a room have masks on. So if you are unvaccinated in that room and someone else comes in without a mask, you're not as safe. What we would say is if you are unvaccinated in that room, you should get vaccinated. Now the challenge here is that not everybody is eligible for vaccination. So we still have children under the age of 11, and, you know, they should obviously still be wearing masks. So if you are unvaccinated, we are saying, wear a mask. Continue to distance. If you are unvaccinated, and practice all of those mitigation strategies. For the unvaccinated, I want to be very clear -- But who is supposed to -- who is supposed to be the vaccination police? You look at Costco and Walmart, these essential workers. What are they supposed to do? They're -- 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. For the unvaccinated, our policy has not changed. This -- we were going to get to a place in this pandemic where vaccinated people were going to be able to take off their masks. We're lucky to be there with the science that we have, and now we have to take this foundational step that is completely based in science, and understand what it means as we open the entire country. Can I ask you just very quickly about the Yankees? Eight tested positive. They were fully vaccinated. What does that tell you? We're still working to understand what has happened in that, and we're working with -- and we're engaging to try to understand the details of that investigation. I don't believe that is complete as of yet. 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. They were detected on routine testing that generally doesn't happen in many other populations. This is the vaccine working. This means that you didn't get infected -- or you didn't get a severe infection. You didn't require hospitalization. You didn't require death, and most likely those people were not transmitting to other people. That is what we're working on the vaccine doing. We were hoping it would do. Okay. Thanks for joining us this morning, Dr. Walensky.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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