Virus Outbreak Senate

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adjusts her face mask Thursday during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on the federal coronavirus response on Capitol Hill in Washington.

It can no longer be reasonably said that the Centers for Disease Control are being too timid on easing COVID-19 precautions.

As the nation’s immunization campaign rolls on, the CDC on Thursday said that fully vaccinated Americans can safely forgo masks and social distancing in most instances, whether indoors or outdoors and regardless of gathering size.

Up until recently, many public health experts were saying that federal guidelines, and in turn some mandates, were overly cautious regarding what vaccinated people could do with a reasonable expectation of safety. The new guidance certainly a big step toward life as we knew it pre-COVID.

But with that big step forward, we should be careful not to take two steps back. Some public health experts — including those who thought the CDC’s guidance was previously too cautious — are worried that relaxing standards for only the vaccinated without any guidelines on verification could at best create confusion and at worst increase systemic risk.

Gov. Charlie Baker is wisely waiting to change Massachusetts’ COVID rules in the face of these new recommendations. With no reliable system in place for determining proof of vaccination, incorporating the CDC’s new mask guidance would mean relying entirely on the honor system. In any public space, this would be fraught. Across the nation and particularly in the Bay State, the vaccination campaign has made great progress, but most health officials agree we haven’t crossed the herd immunity threshold.

There are still many unvaccinated people, whether they’re simply vaccine-hesitant or don’t have a choice — the latter including young children or those who can’t be vaccinated for legitimate medical reasons. There are also immunocompromised or otherwise vulnerable individuals who are vaccinated but are still at higher-than-average risk given that COVID vaccines, like any, are not 100 percent effective. It would be unfair to these individuals and counterproductive to halting the virus’ spread if we begin to allow people who might not be vaccinated but simply say they are to go unmasked into public enclosed spaces like grocery stores or schools.

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While the CDC’s announcement did not come with any guidelines for vaccination verification, this presents yet another opportunity for Massachusetts health officials and the Baker administration to put forth a proof of vaccination model to maintain public safety as strictures loosen on certain events over the summer. Those who get the jab already receive a confirmation card before they exit the clinic. It’s not hard to imagine a system whereby people display this card in the same way they’re asked to show ID when ordering at a bar or liquor store.

As with any new policy, there might be hiccups. But the alternatives are squandering a chance at safely reopening quicker, or doing so unsafely. Those who haven’t learned this lesson yet should onboard it now: We cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good in crafting sensible COVID rules.

And it wouldn’t necessarily have to be a long-term policy. Some health experts have suggested a proof-of-vaccine system that could sunset once a critical mass of a community gets fully vaccinated.

In a couple weeks, the commonwealth will lift indoor and outdoor gathering limits and allow the reopening of some sorely missed recreational activities from streets festivals to beer gardens. A vaccine verification system would facilitate a smoother and safer transition into normal activities as they begin to return over the summer, and hopefully offer an incentive for those still on the fence about getting vaccinated.

Conversely, relaxing masking guidance without any vaccine verification attached might disincentivize vaccination and increase risky public behavior among the still-unvaccinated.

We all welcome meaningful steps toward normality. Relaxed rules for the fully vaccinated, however, can’t possibly be applied appropriately without a fair and established system for proof of vaccination.