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May 10, 2021

As America 'turn[s] the corner' against Covid-19, when will social distancing guidelines change?

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    More than 150 million Americans have received at least one shot of a Covid-19 vaccine, and over a third of Americans are fully vaccinated, according to CDC data, leading White House Covid-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients to say the United States is "turning the corner" in the Covid-19 epidemic.

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    More Americans get vaccinated

    According to CDC, as of Monday, just over 152 million Americans, or 45.8% of the total U.S. population, have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine. Meanwhile, just over 114 million, or 34.4% of the total U.S. population, have been fully vaccinated.

    CDC data also shows that 83.6% of Americans over the age of 65 have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine while 71.3% of Americans over 65 have been fully vaccinated.

    President Joe Biden has set a goal of having 70% of American adults receive at least one Covid-19 vaccine dose by July 4. Currently, CDC data shows that 58% of American adults have received at least one dose, and Zients said reaching Biden's 70% goal could help the country reach sustainably low rates of Covid-19 infections.

    Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and White House chief medical advisor, said if the 70% goal is met, another surge of Covid-19 infections is unlikely.

    "The larger proportion of the population that's vaccinated, the less likelihood that in a season like the coming fall or winter you're going to see a significant surge," he said. "That's the reason why vaccinations are so important. That's the wild card that we have now that we didn't have last fall or the last winter."

    Zients said the United States is "on the path" to "get back to a normal lifestyle," but said Americans should "stay disciplined and … take advantage of the new privileges of being vaccinated and not wearing masks outdoors for example, unless you're in a crowded place."

    Fauci suggests some Covid-19 restrictions could start to be lifted

    Fauci added that, as more people get vaccinated, CDC will update its social distancing and mask guidelines "almost in real time."

    "We do need to start being more liberal as we get more people vaccinated," he said.

    Other public health experts advocated for even more aggressive updates to social distancing requirements. For instance, Scott Gottlieb, a former FDA commissioner, said, "I think we're at the point in time when we can start lifting these ordinances in a wholesale fashion, and people have to take precautions based on their individual risk."

    Gottlieb argued that "we shouldn't be putting limits on [outdoor] gatherings anymore."

    "The states where prevalence is low, vaccination rates are high, and we have good testing in place, we're identifying infections, I think we could start lifting these restrictions indoors as well, on a broad basis," he said.

    Are face masks here to stay—at least on a seasonal basis?

    Even as Fauci suggested that mandatory face masking requirements might be lifted soon, he added that he wouldn't be surprised if some people choose to wear masks on a seasonal basis to reduce the risk of a range of respiratory illnesses, including but not limited to Covid-19.

    "I think people have gotten used to the fact that wearing masks clearly, if you look at the data it diminishes respiratory diseases," he said. "[W]e've had practically a non-existent flu season this year merely because people were doing the kinds of public health things that were directed predominantly against Covid-19."

    He added that "it is conceivable that as we go on a year or two or more from now that during certain seasonal periods when you have respiratory borne viruses like the flu, people might actually elect to wear masks to diminish the likelihood that you’ll spread these respiratory borne diseases" (Chiacu, Reuters, 5/9; Aspegren et. al., USA Today, 5/7; Restuccia, Wall Street Journal, 5/9; Mascarenhas/Maxouris, CNN, 5/10; Macias, CNBC, 5/9; Villegas, Washington Post, 5/9).

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