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National Nurses United opposed to CDC rollback on new COVID-19 mask guidance

The group cited concerns including reduced data tracking and heightened risk of infection among frontline healthcare workers.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

Photo: FG Trade/Getty Images

National Nurses United has spoken out in disagreement with new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance stating that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks, avoid crowds or large gatherings, isolate after exposure, or get tested unless they develop symptoms.

NNU is the largest union of registered nurses in the U.S. Its members said that, given the threat to their patients across the country, they are especially disappointed that the CDC would ease up its COVID-19 guidance on the heels of International Nurses Day, which was May 12.

The CDC released its new recommendations last week, clearing the path for a resumption of normal activities for those who have been fully inoculated. A person is officially considered inoculated two weeks after their final vaccine dose – the second shot of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or a single shot of the Johnson & Johnson product.

Being fully vaccinated doesn't necessarily mean that someone won't get the coronavirus. What it means, rather, is that if the person does contract the virus, it will be extremely mild if it's even noticeable. Most people will be asymptomatic. It also makes it virtually impossible to pass the virus on to someone else, effectively turning an inoculated person into a "dead end" for the virus.

Still, the NNU maintained that the new mask-wearing guidance wasn't science-based and potentially compounds the dangers that nurses and other essential workers continue to face on the job.

"This newest CDC guidance is not based on science, does not protect public health, and threatens the lives of patients, nurses, and other frontline workers across the country," said NNU executive director Bonnie Castillo, RN. "Now is not the time to relax protective measures, and we are outraged that the CDC has done just that while we are still in the midst of the deadliest pandemic in a century."


Many were surprised by the CDC's announcement Thursday, including epidemiologists who reportedly expected a longer period for mask-wearing protocols. The agency said fully vaccinated people can resume normal activities without a mask and are no longer required to socially distance. There are exceptions at state, local, tribal or territorial levels. These locations still have the authority to impose restrictions based on factors such as disease prevalence and community spread.

Travelers will still be required to wear a mask on planes, buses, trains and other forms of public transportation – and in U.S. transportation hubs such as airports and stations. As far as physicians and other personnel, the CDC in April recommended that all staff wear face masks at all times while they are in the healthcare facility. The CDC did not specifically address this guidance.

The NNU floated a number of specific concerns with the CDC's new guidance. One was the continued high number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S., with the CDC's data tracker showing more than 35,000 newly detected infections reported each day as of May 14. 

The nurses union also decried the CDC's announcement that they would no longer be tracking infections among fully vaccinated people unless they result in hospitalization or death. The union worries this would result in a lack of data necessary to understand how long vaccine protection might last, or how well the vaccines would perform against some of the stronger variants that have emerged.

NNU said the CDC needs to fully recognize aerosol transmission, and update its guidance accordingly to prioritize measures that prevent and reduce aerosol transmission, such as ventilation, respiratory protection and testing to identify asymptomatic cases.

The group emphasized the importance of using multiple layers of protective measures to end the pandemic, including masks, distancing, and avoiding crowds and large gatherings, in addition to getting the vaccines. These, they said, would help to better protect nursed and other frontline healthcare workers from workplace exposure to the virus.

"All of our protective measures should remain in place, in addition to vaccines. This pandemic is not over," said NNU President Deborah Burger, RN. "Nurses follow the precautionary principle, which means that until we know for sure something is safe, we use the highest level of protections, not the lowest. The CDC is putting lives at risk with this latest guidance."

Nurses also said it was unclear how well the vaccines prevent asymptomatic and mild COVID-19 infections, although data shows that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is 95% effective in preventing the disease among those without prior infection, while the Moderna vaccine is 94.1% effective. The one-shot Johnson & Johnson product posted 72% overall efficacy and 86% efficacy against severe disease.


As of May 14, the CDC said it was still learning how effective the vaccines are against variants of the virus that causes COVID-19. Early data show the vaccines may work against some variants but could be less effective against others.

As of May 17, the Johns Hopkins University coronavirus tracker showed more than 32.9 million confirmed cases of the virus in the U.S., with the death toll climbing to over 585,000. Both figures lead the world.

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