The CDC's Whiplash on Masks

Where the CDC’s Messaging Got Human Behavior Wrong

Sam Chavez
Sam Chavez

Table of Contents

If you find that your neck has been hurting this week, it’s probably from the whiplash that the CDC unleashed last week.

Unless you’ve gone full nomad during the pandemic, you probably heard the announcement last Thursday that it’s safe for fully vaccinated people to not wear masks in most spaces unless businesses or regulations require them.

Now, I’m all for this news! The science says that vaccines are highly effective even with some of the concerning variants around the world (science is cool!). It’s important that we begin to find a sense of normalcy again and allow those that have followed the science and got vaccinated to experience the rewards. People are tired and want to move on. This announcement gives us hope for a future after the pandemic.

However, the CDC missed the mark on the realities of human behavior and how best to achieve their goal of increasing vaccination rates. As we’ve seen in the last year+, Americans have selective hearing. Most Americans probably skipped the “vaccinated” and “in most situations” part of the statement. You’re already hearing people mask shaming and more outbursts in stores (at the expense of exhausted essential workers). While nuance is not America’s strong suit, let’s dive into some of the nuances of the announcement:

  • There’s no easy way to tell who is and is not vaccinated. It’s an honor system. 

  • While vaccinated people are much safer than those who are not, they may still contract and spread the virus

  • Children under the age of 12 can’t get the vaccine yet, leaving them vulnerable as more adults are unmasked

  • Many immunocompromised people cannot get the vaccine and are counting on others to get vaccinated to protect themselves (or live a Repunzel style castle, either way)

  • Vaccines might not be as effective for those with underlying health conditions

    • And fun fact, they might carry the virus for longer which helps variants spread even faster! 

  • Vaccination rates vary by region. While states like California, New Mexico, and Maine have over 50% of the population vaccinated, many states like Mississippi and Louisiana are severely falling behind. Here’s a great resource for state-by-state vaccination rates

Scientist and Sociology Should Go Hand in Hand

The CDC is filled with health experts and scientists who are at the top of their fields, but they are not communication experts, sociologists, or psychologists. This was immediately clear based on the abruptness of the announcement. As Rochelle Walensky, the director of the CDC has said, part of the reason for the announcement was to encourage more vaccinations. But by not having a coordinated response with communication experts, the CDC has made that effort much, much harder.  Granted, it’s not the CDCs job to be communications experts, but that’s where coordination across the government is important.

The announcement is out of the bag and there’s not much we can do about that now, but the Biden administration, state & regional officials, and corporations have an opportunity to improve communication to achieve higher vaccination rates and to truly put this pandemic behind all of us.

Address the Realities of Human Behavior

First things first, decisions that are as crucial as revoking lifesaving masking requirements should be made with a combination of science and human behavior.

Humans are a flawed species in some ways and that is especially true when it comes to digesting and understanding information. We equally need a short and clear message to get through to us and the nuances to feel more comfortable about critical information. There’s a reason there is vaccine hesitancy out there and part of that is because people need to see credible, trustworthy information (plus the extreme disinformation being fed by the likes of Tucker Carlson). We also aren’t too great about surprises. If a decision feels rushed, we’re going to feel skeptical regardless of if that decision was rushed or not.

At the end of the day, we just want to feel comfortable with the decisions we are making. By announcing this news with absolutely no heads up or preparation, people are understandably confused and frustrated.

Where’s the Nuance that Builds Incentives?

One easy way to encourage increased vaccination is to incentivize people to get the vaccine through rewards. While theoretically, this is what the CDC did, we all know anti-vaxxers have already burned their masks, because the CDC is operating under an honor system. This pandemic has taught us that we cannot just assume.

In fact, the CDC is actually incentivizing the wrong people. Walmart, Target, CVS, and other companies quickly announced that they were dropping their mask requirement for vaccinated adults, but will not be checking if you’re vaccinated. This will inevitably lead to unvaccinated Americans to unmask with impunity, which leaves vaccinated adults who have followed the rules feeling uncomfortable in spaces where they cannot trust that people are vaccinated. This could lead to more unmasking hesitancy and actually slow the reopening if vaccinated Americans are hesitant to go into stores where many unvaccinated people are.

Rather than let all vaccinated Americans unmask, find ways to target the rewards. Similar to California’s tiered reopening, the White House could have coordinated with state and local governments to allow certain regions with higher vaccination rates to unmask more quickly. This builds a community element into the effort or as the kids/geriatric Millennials say the FOMO effect. If you are in a community that is under-vaccinated and can’t unmask because not enough people are vaccinated, you are going to be incentivized to encourage your friends and family to get vaccinated so you can enjoy the freedoms that other communities have.

Slow Roll It & Build Trust

Another mistake the CDC made was making the new rules immediate. This left no one (not even Biden) time to prepare for the updated rules. Without preparation or a buffer before the rules are implemented, states and companies feel like they’re left out to dry.

The immediacy of the rule made for the worst of both worlds. Careful Americans who have followed guidelines feel betrayed and caught off guard, while anti-maskers can be even angrier that the rule wasn’t implemented earlier.

Including a buffer time before the rules were implemented would have allowed time to prepare more specific guidelines for various individuals (how are parents supposed to handle their unvaccinated children?) and to prepare messaging for the new rules. Clear messaging is important when it comes to trust.

California made the decision to eliminate the mask mandate on June 15th (although you can unmask while outside now). This gives Californians a full month to get comfortable with the new regulations, companies to prepare, and enough time for health officials to increase the vaccination rate. This short wait builds trust with constituents to know that each county will be able to prepare for the change in the rules so that vaccinated Americans can feel fully comfortable to return to some sense of normalcy.

For more on this subject, check out Abdul El-Sayed’s article on the topic.

I will leave you with this: Stay kind and respect others. We can only get out of this pandemic if we have enough empathy for others.

🗼🗞: Newsletter

Sam Chavez

Sam is a writer, strategist, and curious human. She founded the roots of change agency in 2020. Sam is a queer, white, LatinX activist who’s passionate about a livable planet & equitable societies.


Navigating heart-first activism & storytelling. We explore the 🌱 roots of our world to support communicators, organizations, and activists 🥵 to avoid burnout and 📚 tell empathetic stories that cultivate connections that 🌍 empower ✊🏽 social change.

Learn more about the Roots of Change Agency.