A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jun 2, 2021

How Has the Relaxed CDC Covid Mask Guidance Affected New Cases?

The CDC's relaxed mask guidance does not appear to have affected the continued decline of new Covid cases, nor has it changed the number of people getting vaccinated. 

Both indices suggest that the CDC was correct. JL 

David Leonhardt reports in the New York Times:

Three weeks after the change, the data suggests optimists were better prognosticators than  pessimists. New Covid cases have continued to decline at the same rate as the month before the C.D.C. announcement. The loosened guidelines did not cause many people to change their behavior in ways that created new risks. Vaccinated people went maskless more often, but they are unlikely to get the virus. Even before the C.D.C. change, many unvaccinated Americans were not wearing masks. There don’t seem to be enough unvaccinated people who stopped wearing masks to increase the spread of the virus.

Hope over fear

When the C.D.C. reversed its Covid-19 guidelines last month and said that vaccinated Americans rarely needed to wear masks, it caused both anxiety and uncertainty.

Many people worried that the change would cause unvaccinated people to shed their masks and create a surge of new cases. On the flip side, a more optimistic outcome also seemed possible: that the potential to live mostly mask-free would inspire some vaccine-hesitant Americans to get their shots.

Almost three weeks after the change, we can begin to get some answers by looking at the data. So far, it suggests that the optimists were better prognosticators than the pessimists.

Cases keep falling

First, new Covid cases have continued to decline at virtually the same rate as during the month before the C.D.C. announcement, which came on May 13:

By The New York Times | Sources: State and local health agencies and hospitals

Overall, daily new cases have fallen by almost 75 percent since mid-April and by more than 90 percent from the peak in January.

A crucial point is that the loosened guidelines probably did not cause many people to change their behavior in ways that created new risks. Vaccinated people went maskless more often, but they are extremely unlikely to get the virus. And even before the C.D.C. change, many unvaccinated Americans were already not wearing masks, particularly in Republican-leaning communities.

The only newly worrisome scenarios involve unvaccinated people who had been wearing masks and decided to stop doing so after the C.D.C.’s new policy. Surely, some Americans fall into this category. But there don’t seem to be enough of them to increase the spread of the virus.

Shots have stopped falling

On the other hand, the C.D.C.’s change has had a noticeable effect on behavior in a positive way.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the agency’s director, announced the new mask recommendations at 2:17 p.m. Eastern on Thursday, May 13. Almost immediately, the number of visits to vaccines.gov — a website where people can research their local vaccination options — spiked, CNN’s Elizabeth Cohen has reported.

Traffic to the website rose even higher later that afternoon, after President Biden celebrated the change and encouraged Americans to get vaccinated so they could remove their masks. In the days that followed, traffic to vaccines.gov remained higher than it had been before the announcement.

More important, the vaccination trends also changed after Walensky’s announcement. For the previous month, the number of daily shots in the U.S. had been falling, as the country began to run out of adults who were eager to be vaccinated. With a few days of the mask announcement, the decline leveled off.

By The New York Times | Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The chart here looks at the trends only among Americans 16 and up. The total number of daily vaccinations — including 12- to 15-year-olds, who became eligible the same week as Walensky’s mask announcement — has risen in the past few weeks.

‘Some positive reinforcement’

All of this is a reminder that fear is not the only way to motivate healthy behavior during a crisis. For much of the pandemic, the message from the C.D.C. has been one of “doom and gloom,” Dr. Jonathan Reiner of George Washington University told CNN. And fear can play an important role: Covid is a deadly disease, especially for people over 40.

But fear tends to be effective “for only a short period of time, and then often engenders reactance and resistance,” Sarit Golub, a Hunter College psychology professor, has written. Hope can be more sustainable. As Reiner said, “When you give the public some positive reinforcement, it really can bear fruit.”

In the case of the Covid vaccines, the hope is grounded in reality. Once you are fully vaccinated, you no longer need to organize your life around personal fear of Covid (unless you are immunocompromised). You can safely travel, eat in restaurants, shop in stores, visit with friends and hug your extended family. You can do all of it without a mask. Many other normal activities — like riding in a car or exposing yourself to a normal flu season — present more risk.

After almost 15 months of pandemic living, I know that may sound aggressive, but it’s not. It is a straightforward summary of the scientific evidence.


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