‘It is probably time’: Doctors say vaccinations pave way to loosening mask restrictions

Face Masks

MADISON, Wis. – It’s not a green light to get rid of your masks just yet, but local doctors say new federal guidance loosening masking recommendations makes sense.

Because of the updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rock County officials announced Friday that their mask mandate is ending, effective immediately. Dane County’s mask mandate is still in place, but public health officials said on Twitter that they will plan to share an updated public health order Tuesday.

“It is a big sign of progress,” UW Health Chief Quality Officer Dr. Jeff Pothof said, adding that COVID-19 cases are decreasing and vaccinations are increasing at the same time scientists are learning more about how well vaccines protect against transmission and new variants. “All these things come together, and it is probably time.”

The CDC guidance allows fully-vaccinated people to stop wearing masks outdoors in crowds and in most indoor settings.

Pothof said that means those who are fully-vaccinated can feel a lot safer heading out to places like restaurants and taking off their masks.

“It’s almost hard to believe we’re saying that after a year of saying exactly the opposite, but you know, the vaccines were and are the real deal,” he said. “We said this would be the game-changer, this would turn it around. This is probably the first really big news that has us keeping that promise.”

“They have followed the science and data very closely,” said Dr. David Ottenbaker, vice president of ambulatory clinical programs at SSM Health Wisconsin. “For the CDC to lighten up their restrictions before we hit herd immunity is a testimonial to the efficacy of the vaccines.”

At the same time, federal guidelines still recommend masks in crowded places including buses, planes and hospitals.

“It is really easy to just be like, I’m throwing them in the bin. I’m having a bonfire tonight, but there are caveats,” Pothof said.

“Especially when you’re around vulnerable people — yes it’s still very unlikely that you’re carrying the virus, but you could — so just use common sense,” Ottenbaker said.

For vaccinated people with children who are still too young to get their shots, Pothof said they’ll have to consider the best masking choices for them.

“For those individuals based on their kids at home or their risk tolerance, they may decide to keep that mask on until their kids can get vaccinated just for that very low chance I might pick something up,” Pothof said. “The risk is low there, so it’s not a complete prohibition, but probably something folks will be thinking about.”

Businesses may choose to keep mask requirements in place, even if local ordinances don’t require it.

“We’re heading very quickly, we hope, to a new normal, but we’re not quite there yet,” Ottenbaker said. “Let’s get everyone vaccinated; it’s safe. The quicker we get to herd immunity, the time will come when we won’t perhaps have to wear a mask.”