Today, the New York Yankees announced that an 8th member of the organization, shortstop Gleyber Torres, has tested positive for the novel coronavirus in the latest team outbreak. All 8 members of the Yankee organization are fully vaccinated, making these cases so-called “breakthrough positives.” Also, Torres had Covid-19 in December 2020, so his current case counts as a reinfection.
Announcement of the Yankee outbreak occurred on the same day that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) loosened its guidance on masking protocols for fully vaccinated individuals. On Thursday CDC said that fully vaccinated people can ditch their masks in most settings, including most public indoor spaces. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky issued a statement declaring that “anyone who is fully vaccinated can participate in indoor and outdoor activities, large and small, without wearing a mask or physical distancing.”
It would appear that the sudden change in guidance is aimed at trying to create positive incentives for people to vaccinate. Indeed, President Biden tweeted: “After a year of hard work and so much sacrifice, the rule is now simple: Get vaccinated or wear a mask until you do.”
This of course raises a key practical question on how to distinguish who is, and who is not, vaccinated. The U.S. has no vaccine passport or proof of vaccination system in place. And, without one - remember, the Biden Administration passed on the opportunity to create such a system - how do you check that someone in a public indoor space has been vaccinated.
Aside from the practicality of distinguishing between the vaccinated and un-vaccinated, there’s the more important public health matter question: Is this sound policy at this point in time? In brief, no, it’s not. And policymakers need not look any further than the Yankee outbreak among 8 fully vaccinated individuals. While vaccinations will in all likelihood protect the members of the Yankee organization from moderate to severe illness, they clearly haven’t prevented them from contracting the virus. And if they can contract coronavirus, they can transmit it as well, and not just to other vaccinated people, but also un-vaccinated, vulnerable individuals. Furthermore, the risk of such transmission increases in all indoor settings. So, being unmasked in public indoor spaces, even if vaccinated, wouldn’t appear to be such a great idea, at least not when there’s still plenty of community transmission of the virus taking place.
Needless to say, it’s awkward to have the CDC alter its guidance on masking for fully vaccinated individuals, seemingly prematurely, on the same day that 8 fully vaccinated members of the Yankee organization test positive for Covid-19. Public health messaging has been problematic throughout the pandemic, whether issued by public health officials or political leaders. And this instance is no different.
The CDC has announced it will investigate the outbreak. The agency may be compelled to do more than just an investigation. It may want to revisit its guidance to comport with the reality that vaccinated folks can transmit the virus. Though the levels of community spread are dropping, they’re not yet at the point to support changes in masking protocols in public indoor spaces.