Freedom from masks is coming for the vaccinated. Will it push skeptics to get their shots?
It’s never been easier to get vaccinated for COVID-19. Clinics are plentiful and increasingly mobile — and so many doses are available that California is even offering cash prizes of more than a million dollars in hopes of enticing holdouts.
But with the state now less than two weeks away from fully reopening, one more incentive is on the horizon: freedom from wearing a mask.
As the coronavirus fades, there is a growing belief among even the most cautious health experts that it’s fine for those who are fully vaccinated to shed their face coverings almost entirely — though it’s still essential for the uninoculated to adhere to mask-wearing and physical distancing rules.
The advice, officials say, is based on science. But there’s a practical byproduct too as some of those who have been reluctant to roll up their sleeves might leap at the chance to return to something more closely resembling pre-pandemic normal life.
“I think we are all really clear and comfortable with the facts around fully vaccinated people having a lot of protection because they’re fully vaccinated, and that protection means that they don’t need to continue doing all of the public health measures that have gotten us this far,” Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said Wednesday.
Increasing evidence about the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines and California’s low case rates convince experts it’s safe to stop wearing masks.
On May 13, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines stating that those who are fully vaccinated for COVID-19 can go without masks in most places.
A few days later, California announced it would align its rules with the federal guidance on June 15 — also the target date for fully reopening the state’s economy.
Although it’s impossible to categorize every individual’s motivation, California did see a notable uptick in inoculations immediately after the CDC’s announcement, which momentarily reversed what had been a significant and sustained slide.
From May 14 to May 20, an average of nearly 110,000 residents a day got their first vaccine dose, according to data compiled by The Times. In the week leading up to the CDC’s announcement, the daily average was about 76,400.
Of course, a number of factors were likely at play — including, notably, that appointments for Californians ages 12 to 15 started being offered at precisely the time when vaccinations ticked up.
Between May 14 and 20, roughly 41% of people who got their first shots were 12 to 17 years old, Times’ data show.
Whatever the reasons, that bump was fleeting, and the state’s vaccination pace has tailed off steadily since.
Being able to shed the sometimes stifling face coverings might just be icing on the cake for some, but for others, there may soon be additional incentive.
A state workplace safety board on Thursday is scheduled to consider a proposal that would allow workers to ditch their masks if everyone in a room is fully vaccinated and free of COVID-19 symptoms.
In general, health officials are quick to point out that getting vaccinated is not only key to eventually ending the pandemic, but also the quickest way for residents to get back to doing the activities and seeing the people that they love.
An increasing number of studies are underscoring how effective the vaccines are at preventing not only severe disease and death, but also infections. And even in the rare cases in which vaccinated people get the virus, scientists say, they’re far less likely to transmit it.
Those are among the reasons that UCLA epidemiologist and infectious disease expert Dr. Robert Kim-Farley said he has little reason to be anxious about getting sick if he doesn’t wear a mask inside a supermarket when California ends that requirement for vaccinated people on June 15.
“Given the extraordinary efficaciousness of this vaccine, one can again follow the science and say that it’s very low risk if you’ve been vaccinated,” Kim-Farley said.
Northern counties -- including Tehama and Lassen -- have low vaccination rates and the state’s highest rate of infection.
Though more than 70% of California adults have now gotten at least one vaccine dose — a milestone the state reached one month ahead of the target date set by the Biden administration — officials acknowledge that the heaviest lifting is probably still ahead.
Boosting that coverage level closer to 80%, the threshold many experts believe necessary to achieve long-lasting herd immunity against the coronavirus, will entail not only removing any remaining barriers to vaccine access, but also convincing those who are on the fence.
For some, that might mean simply learning more about the protective power the shots afford.
As of May 24, 2,298 cases of a fully vaccinated person being hospitalized had been reported nationwide to the CDC, along with 439 deaths. Federal health officials said 23% of those hospitalizations and 16% of fatalities were “reported as asymptomatic or not related to COVID-19.”
More than 130 million Americans had been fully vaccinated as of that date.
This is “continued evidence of the power of vaccines in the U.S., which will certainly get even better the more of us get immunized and protect the rest of the herd. The small odds of hospitalizations and deaths are so rare,” UC San Francisco infectious disease expert Dr. Peter Chin-Hong said.
At its current pace, Ferrer estimated L.A. County — the nation’s most populous — could at least partially vaccinate 80% of its residents 16 and older by late August.
“My hope is actually as it becomes clearer and there are more and more examples about how powerful these vaccines are and people are able to see their friends and other family members get vaccinated and really experience for themselves the safety that these vaccines offer, we’ll have more people come in,” she said.
Jobs will come back and the state’s economy will recover faster than the nation’s, a UCLA forecast says, led by consumer spending, tech jobs and home-building
Others might be more swayed by all the metaphorical — and literal — doors that being vaccinated can open.
Dr. Robert Wachter, chair of the UC San Francisco Department of Medicine, said he ate indoors last month at a restaurant with out-of-town friends.
Wachter had been concerned about the rare chance that he would encounter an unvaccinated infected person who could transmit the virus to him, and then the virus “breaking through” his vaccine-induced immunity. While he was confident that he wouldn’t die from COVID-19 because he’s been vaccinated, he worried about the chance of experiencing long-lasting symptoms.
But increasingly convincing evidence about the effectiveness of the vaccines and California’s continuing low daily coronavirus case rates started to change his mind. The final push was San Francisco’s infamous chilly, windy weather, which drove him inside.
“The true unpleasantness of shivering your way through dinner — while you’re wearing four layers and there’s a heater going full-bore — just made me say: ‘I think I’ve crossed my threshold,’” Wachter said. “Of course, once you cross it, you’re going to keep doing it.”
Times staff writer Sean Greene contributed to this report.
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