The CDC on Thursday announced much looser mask guidelines for fully vaccinated Americans.
It previously advised vaccinated people to wear masks in certain settings, particularly indoors.
Masks are still advised for people who have not been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
The moment we've been waiting for is here: Fully vaccinated Americans can drop their masks, ease up on distance protocols, and start doing the things they used to before the pandemic.
In a press briefing Thursday, Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said fully vaccinated people could take off their masks indoors and outdoors at gatherings of any size.
The guidance, updated on the CDC's website, also says fully vaccinated people no longer have to keep a distance from others.
The CDC started the gradual "unmasking" of fully vaccinated people in March. First it said vaccinated folks were allowed to gather indoors without masks, then they got the OK to take off their masks outside.
Now, fully vaccinated people who've waited at least two weeks for the shots to take effect are cleared to drop their masks in most places, the CDC said. Exceptions include healthcare settings, homeless shelters, public transportation, and airports. Private companies such as stores and airlines will also be free to enforce mask rules as they see fit.
"Anyone who is fully vaccinated can participate in indoor or outdoor activities, large or small, without wearing a mask or physical distancing," Walensky said. "If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic."
The latest announcement marks the next step in the return to normal and a huge win for COVID-19 vaccines.
"This announcement is long overdue," Dr. Leana Wen, the former health commissioner of Baltimore, had told Insider. "The CDC is at risk for being irrelevant and their advice not trusted. They need to clearly demonstrate the power of the vaccine in preventing infection and illness."
Access to highly effective vaccines made this possible
On Wednesday, a CDC advisory panel gave the green light for administering Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine to 12- to 15-year-olds, making this unmasking even more possible.
The COVID-19 vaccines have been found to be highly effective at preventing severe infections, hospitalizations, and deaths.
Even in the rare cases where vaccinated people have gotten infected, studies suggest they usually have a lower viral load, meaning they're less likely to transmit the virus and may have a milder illness.
Don't throw out your masks just yet
Despite the excitement of unmasking, it's not time to say goodbye to face coverings for good. Masks are still helpful for protecting yourself and others, especially indoors.
The US is on its way to herd immunity, the point at which enough people will have either gotten COVID-19 or been vaccinated that the coronavirus can no longer spread easily.
But we're not there yet. As Insider's Hilary Brueck wrote, we're entering a precarious moment in the pandemic. New variants are popping up as fast as the country is reopening. While the shots are effective against many known variants, there's a possibility that the virus could outsmart the vaccines if we move too fast too soon.
And no one knows how long the protection afforded by the vaccines will last. Promising research on booster shots designed to extend immunity is underway - but until we know more, you're going to want to hold on to your mask just in case.
Hilary Brueck, Insider's health correspondent, contributed reporting.
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