Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle P. Walensky offered a new risk assessment to the public on May 16: “If you are vaccinated, we are saying you are safe, you can take [off] your mask and you are not at risk of severe disease or hospitalization from COVID-19,” she said during an appearance on Fox News Sunday. “If you are not vaccinated, you are not safe. Please go get vaccinated or continue to wear your mask.”
Please go get vaccinated or continue to wear your mask. It’s a simple statement that, following the relaxing of COVID-19 vaccination eligibility guidelines and the boost in vaccine production, sounds easy enough. Sure, just go get a shot! Anyone who wants one is eligible! This shouldn’t be hard! Yet while it seems straightforward, the latest vaccination numbers show that it’s not a full enough answer to the systemic inequalities of the pandemic.
Only 38 percent of the country is fully vaccinated and Black Americans are less so. A Kaiser Health News analysis of CDC vaccination data this week found that only 22 percent of Black Americans have gotten vaccinated, and in most states the rate of Black people who’ve been vaccinated lags behind that of white residents. This is a flagrant failure in the vaccine rollout, especially considering that Black folks experienced some of the worst COVID-19 outcomes—a matter fueled by systemic racism and compounded by being more likely to work an essential job and less likely to have access to quality health care.
Such a reality is one reason the CDC’s call to end masking for vaccinated people gives pause. The decision is well rooted in the science of virus transmission. Vaccines are excellent at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 as well as preventing infection in most people, with the exception of older people or anyone who is immunocompromised. For those who may get a breakthrough infection, the chances of it being severe are slim and viral load is likely to be lower. All of this results in less community spread for vaccinated people.
There’s the caveat: vaccinated people.
A safe, mask-free future for everyone will be out of reach as long as considerable barriers to vaccination remain, and Black Americans are more likely to face those barriers. These include not being able to take time off work to get vaccinated, or not having enough sick days should one experience rough symptoms in the days after the shot; lack of access to reliable transportation; navigating shoddy appointment portals, or lacking reliable internet access to even try to use the portals; inaccessible vaccine site locations, or a general lack of locations at all.
It’s impossible to know an unmasked person’s actual vaccination status unless they decide to share that information truthfully. Unvaccinated people risk contracting and spreading COVID-19 as the virus mutates and possibly becomes more contagious or deadlier. Herd immunity could protect most people, including those who aren’t vaccinated by force or by choice, but more people need access to vaccines for the public to ever reach herd immunity. The CDC’s guidance doesn’t offer any recommendations for how to enforce masking of people who are unvaccinated, and without any specific mandates on how to enforce this, spread could increase. It’s reasonable to assume that if spread increases, the most vulnerable among unvaccinated Americans will suffer. Again. (This includes everyone who is immunocompromised, too.)
In the interim, the CDC just advises unvaccinated people to remain masked, even as masks come off around them. And while it’s clear that vaccinated people will generally be fine in this situation, where does this leave the millions of unvaccinated Americans—many of whom face particular disadvantages—in the continuing fight against COVID-19? It’s a tricky circumstance, and marginalized communities tend to bear the brunt of those. Leaving it unresolved contradicts the many public gestures made by the current administration to save Black lives.