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People wearing masks in Santa Monica, California, a day after the CDC relaxed the use of wearing masks outdoors.
Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

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Why some fully vaccinated people are still wearing masks

In a poll conducted shortly after the CDC issued updated guidelines, more than half of all fully vaccinated people said they were still wearing masks.

Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Fully vaxxed, and still masked.

The habit of masking up wasn’t so easily changed by new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — at least in the first few days following its release, according to a new poll from Vox and Data for Progress. Most respondents (61 percent), including more than half of those who are fully vaccinated, said they were continuing to wear masks outdoors.

The survey of 1,203 registered voters was fielded from May 14 to 17 — the four days after the CDC’s announcement that, depending on state and local laws, vaccinated people didn’t need to wear masks in most indoor or outdoor settings.

Forty-nine percent of both vaccinated and unvaccinated respondents who still wear masks said they did so to protect themselves from the coronavirus, 42 percent said they wanted to make sure they didn’t spread the virus to those around them, and 21 percent said they wore masks to protect themselves from illnesses other than the coronavirus. Only 8 percent said they wore masks because they worried others would judge them, and just 6 percent said they did because it was an expression of their political views.

Of fully vaccinated respondents who continue to wear masks outdoors, 64 percent said they wanted to protect themselves, 65 percent said they wanted to ensure they weren’t spreading the coronavirus, and 28 percent said they wanted to protect themselves from other illnesses. Seven percent said they were wearing masks outdoors because they worried people would judge them, and 6 percent said they did to express a political viewpoint.

The percentage of people still masking — particularly among the fully vaccinated — may have changed in the nine days since the poll closed and as more people learned about the new guidelines. More states and businesses have since relaxed their rules in keeping with the CDC’s direction, and scientists have reiterated that the vaccines really do work. Still, some people might continue to wear masks for a variety of reasons, even as they’re no longer required.

The vaccines work. But people might still mask for a variety of reasons.

As the survey found, most people who mask are motivated by their health or that of those around them. Some vaccinated individuals told USA Today they plan to continue masking in part to protect children who have been unable to receive a vaccine, as well as to safeguard people they know who have weakened immune systems.

“Wearing a mask seems like such a small task to help keep them safe. Plus, I wouldn’t want to confuse them by forcing them to wear a mask in a store, but me not do it,” Erin Eilskov, a mother of two, told the newspaper.

As NBC affiliate WBAL in Maryland reported, some people may also feel anxious about changing their mask usage after a year of building the habit and experiencing the trauma of the pandemic. Once they’re vaccinated, adjusting their behavior is something people can work up to gradually if they’re uncomfortable altering their routine completely, mental health experts told Refinery29.

In a cafe, both servers and customers are fully masked and physically distanced, a day after the CDC relaxed its masking guidelines.
Even as more states and businesses relax their mask mandates in response to the CDC’s new guidance, some people will continue to wear masks for a variety of reasons.
Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

“A lot of the reason that even vaccinated people are wearing masks is that it’s hard to completely imbibe this data. It feels really scary. We’ve come off a really anxious time … people are traumatized and they feel safer with the mask. And I think that’s absolutely fine,” Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease doctor and a professor at the University of California San Francisco, told the Guardian.

For some, the decision comes down to a lack of trust, both in unvaccinated people they could encounter and in guidance from institutions like the CDC, which sent mixed messages on mask-wearing early in the pandemic.

Roughly two weeks ago, the CDC announced that the growing body of evidence demonstrating low rates of transmission among vaccinated individuals contributed to its decision to issue new guidance about masks. As Vox’s German Lopez has written, it’s likely that part of the impetus behind the move was to demonstrate the benefits of vaccination and provide a better incentive for those who aren’t yet vaccinated to consider taking that step.

“We have all longed for this moment — when we can get back to some sense of normalcy,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told reporters on the day of the announcement. “Based on the continuing downward trajectory of cases, the scientific data on the performance of our vaccines, and our understanding of how the virus spreads, that moment has come for those who are fully vaccinated.”

Some have embraced the guidance since it’s gone into effect, but as Lopez reported, the new rules have also sparked confusion regarding their enforcement:

In public settings, are people simply supposed to trust that the maskless are vaccinated? Will businesses start asking for proof of vaccination before someone can shed the mask? Will there be any enforcement at all, or will the assumption be that the unvaccinated are left to fend for themselves? All of that remains to be seen.

Some public health experts have criticized the timing of the announcement, as many adults have yet to be fully vaccinated and most children still don’t qualify. It’s worth restating: The vaccines work. The CDC’s decision is scientifically sound and speaks to both the vaccines’ efficacy and the public health agency’s confidence in them, Vox’s Brian Resnick previously explained.

The unevenness in vaccine uptake, though, and difficulties around verifying it, have contributed to some of the questions being raised.

Half of all US adults are fully vaccinated, but uptake is uneven

More than 39 percent of people in the US, including 50 percent of adults, have been fully vaccinated so far, according to the CDC’s tracker.

Forty-nine percent of all people surveyed in the Vox/DFP poll said they were fully vaccinated, though such rates differed across party lines: 57 percent of Democrats, 48 percent of independents, and 40 percent of Republicans said they had received all the injections required. Fifty-eight percent of all people, including 69 percent of Democrats, 55 percent of independents, and 46 percent of Republicans, had received at least one dose of the vaccine already. And 16 percent — 4 percent of Democrats, 19 percent of independents, and 30 percent of Republicans — said they did not plan to get vaccinated.

In a busy store, customers wait in line, all wearing masks.
The Vox and Data for Progress survey found that most people who mask were motivated by their health or that of those around them.
Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

A plurality of people, 42 percent, said they’d vaccinate their child as soon as a vaccine was “approved and deemed safe” for their age group, while 16 percent said they would only do so after other parents they know did, and 20 percent would if their child’s school required it. Fifteen percent said they don’t intend to vaccinate their child at all. Answers to this question differed somewhat along party lines, as well: 47 percent of Democrats planned to vaccinate their child as soon as possible while 2 percent said they wouldn’t, compared with 30 percent of Republican respondents to both questions.

For a plurality of people in the poll (46 percent), a return to normalcy — or to general behaviors they had before the pandemic, like attending an indoor party with a large group of people — was tied to the US reaching either herd immunity or a vaccination rate high enough to fully deter the spread of the virus, something experts think is currently unlikely given the contagiousness of new variants and slower vaccine uptake from some segments of the population. Seventeen percent of people said a return to normalcy depended on the majority of people they personally know getting vaccinated, and 26 percent said they didn’t connect it to vaccines at all.

Overall, the survey revealed that most respondents — 74 percent — were still concerned about the pandemic, but a similar number, 72 percent, see the country on a positive trajectory. Currently, 63 percent said they were still taking public health precautions against the virus, while 27 percent said they were generally engaging in the same behaviors that they did prior to the pandemic.

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