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ANALYSIS: Why Are Vaccinated Politicians Still Wearing Masks?

(Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

Bradley Devlin General Assignment & Analysis Reporter
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Even though President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and other politicians have received both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, they continue to wear masks and urge prolonged caution.

This may very well be the Biden administration maintaining a cautionary stance when it comes to COVID-19 — a posture that has been a major departure from former President Donald Trump’s administration dating back to the 2020 election cycle. However, their insistence on lingering pandemic precautions despite a largely successful vaccine rollout could create major messaging problems: If getting vaccinated means individuals cannot once again start living their normal lives, what is the incentive to get the vaccine in the first place?

After waiting the recommended three weeks between his first and second vaccine shot, Biden was administered the second shot of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in front of cameras and members of the press Jan. 11, according to the Associated Press.

“The No. 1 priority is getting vaccines in people’s arms as rapidly as we can,” Biden said at the time. Just a few weeks later, Harris received her second dose of the Moderna vaccine at the National Institutes of Health Jan. 26, according to Reuters. The vaccinations of a range of top political figures such as former Vice President Mike Pence were taped and brought into the homes of Americans across the country, encouraging them to get the vaccine.

Biden hosted his first full cabinet meeting April 1 in the White House East Room rather than the cabinet room located in the West Wing so that the cabinet secretaries could have adequate social distancing, the Associated Press reported. All of the cabinet secretaries remained masked while Biden delivered brief remarks to members of the press without a mask on, even though the cabinet secretaries and essential staffers have been eligible to get the vaccine since the beginning of the year, according to POLITICO

Last week, both Biden and Harris met with Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. He has also been vaccinated, according to The Japan Times. Nevertheless, Biden and Suga wore masks during their April 16 meeting, along with key advisers and staff members.

Harris also welcomed Suga to the White House and remained masked while delivering her remarks.

As vaccines have been distributed across the country, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have updated their guidelines for individuals who have received vaccinations. The new guidance, initially released March 8, said that fully vaccinated individuals still must comply with COVID-19 guidelines in public. In private, however, the CDC said vaccinated individuals are allowed to gather together indoors without masks on, and associate with low-risk members, such as children, from one other household. 

At the time, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said the science on what is and is not safe for vaccinated individuals was limited.

“The science of COVID-19 is complex, and our understanding of the virus continues to rapidly evolve. The recommendations issued today are just a first step,” the CDC director said. It seems that in the face of uncertainty, the CDC has leaned heavily on the side of caution, as Walensky has said she feels a sense of “impending doom” despite an ever increasing amount of vaccinated Americans.

The new guidance also confirmed that vaccinated individuals who have been exposed to the virus did not have to quarantine.

As of March 8, the CDC did not update their guidelines on travel for vaccinated individuals, but Walensky said vaccinated persons should avoid it for the time being. However, the CDC changed its tune April 2, and said that vaccinated individuals could travel without quarantining.

However, Walensky has acknowledged that “our data from the CDC today suggests, you know, that vaccinated people do not carry the virus, don’t get sick, and that it’s not just in the clinical trials but it’s also in real world data,” in a March 29 interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow.

Recently, the CDC has admitted that it previously overestimated the risk of COVID-19 transmission from contact with contaminated surfaces. Quantitative microbial risk assessment (QMRA) studies found that the chances someone is infected with COVID-19 through contact with a contaminated surface is “generally less than 1 in 10,000.”

The CDC first discovered that COVID-19 was not easily spread on surfaces in May 2020, but despite these revelations, public guidance at the time suggested the virus could be present on surfaces for up to three days.

It seems the Biden administration’s abundance of caution mirrors the attitudes of Biden’s top-ranking health officials. That still doesn’t explain why members of the Biden administration continue to wear masks when they are in settings that the CDC’s guidelines would permit them to go maskless, such as indoor meetings with other fully-vaccinated individuals. (RELATED: Is Biden’s CDC Extending The Pandemic?)

The zero-risk approach of the Biden administration and the CDC are a departure from the approach taken by figures like Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Republican Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

DeSantis, who has signaled he is against vaccine passports whether or not implemented by the government or the private sector, has criticized the confused messaging coming from the Biden administration and the public health apparatus. At an April 16 press conference, DeSantis appeared with Executive Director of the Department of Economic Opportunity Dane Eagle and updated the public on Florida’s financial situation and COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

DeSantis said he thinks that when “people who have been vaccinated for months are wearing two masks,” it undermines the affirmative case to get the vaccine.

“My view is is if you get a vaccine, the vaccines are effective,” DeSantis said, “You’re immune and so, act immune. If you tell people the opposite, then gee, you know why, if it’s not effective for them and it’s not going to change anything then what’s the point of going through it?”

Cruz also came out against public health messaging that could discourage the public from getting the vaccine. At a March 24 press conference, a reporter asked Cruz if he would “mind putting on a mask” before addressing them.

“All of us have been immunized,” Cruz responded, and told the reporter they could “step back” if they were uncomfortable.

“You’re welcome to step away if you’d like,” Cruz said, before saying “the whole point of a vaccine” is to get back to normal. “CDC guidance is what we’re following,” Cruz added.

Cruz also announced April 16 that he would no longer be wearing a mask on the Capitol complex.

“At this point I’ve been vaccinated. Everybody working in the Senate has been vaccinated,” Cruz said. While the House of Representatives have implemented a mask mandate that could subject members to fines if they do not comply, the Senate has not mandated mask wearing.