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Mask rule ‘kind of an honor system’

New CDC guidance allows vaccinated people to go without face coverings

Thursday’s COVID-19 guidance that will permit fully vaccinated people to go maskless almost everywhere is welcome, but the change will make it hard to tell who’s following the rules, according to local observers.

“It’s a good sign,” said Mike Luciano, owner of Mike’s Court in Altoona. “(The COVID-19 crisis) is not totally over, but it’s getting close.”

Yet the recommendations, under which unvaccinated people must still wear masks in many settings, may generate uncertainty in public places — because “if nobody’s wearing a mask, you don’t know who’s vaccinated and who’s not,” said Mark Taylor, director of the Blair County Emergency Management Department. “It will be kind of an honor system.”

The new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls for fully vaccinated people to wear masks only in crowded indoor settings like buses, planes, hospitals, prisons and homeless shelters — a change that applies automatically in Pennsylvania, due to a recent guidance amendment from the state Department of Health, according to a Department of Health news release Thursday.

Still in effect, however, for unvaccinated people is the state’s prior order mandating masks indoors if non-household members are present and outdoors where social distancing from non-household members is not possible, according to the DoH.

There will be no practical way to enforce mask wearing now on unvaccinated people who don’t want to comply with the holdover masking order, said Zane Gates, a local physician.

“It’s America,” Gates said. “It’s really hard.”

A convenience store cannot in good conscience ask employees to request a vaccine card from everyone who comes in without a mask, he said.

That would “put them at the risk of being in a confrontation,” he said. “Why put employees in peril?”

“It’s not like you can put a tag” on unvaccinated people, Luciano said.

Asking for vaccination cards might also “encroach on Constitutional” issues, Gates said.

Yet many of the people unwilling to get shots are likely to be the ones unwilling to wear masks, Gates and Taylor agreed.

There’s an “out,” however, for people worried about getting infected by unmasked people who are unvaccinated, according to Gates and Taylor.

They can simply wear a mask themselves, both said.

Better yet, get vaccinated, they said.

That suggestion is in line with the CDC’s intentions for the new guidance.

That new guidance “is another incentive to get the vaccine that is now easily and conveniently available,” stated Alison Beam, acting state health secretary in the DoH news release.

The vaccinations work, as shown by COVID-19 patients that AMED handles recently being all unvaccinated, said AMED Executive Director Gary Watters.

There was one exception — and it went against steep odds — the case of an AMED staffer who got the virus, Watters said.

But that staffer’s case was mild, Watters said.

It might not have been mild if he hadn’t been vaccinated, Watters said.

Some of Luciano’s customers think the COVID-19 rules have represented government overreach. Others think the rules need to be strictly followed “until it’s totally over,” Luciano said.

Many of them are just itching to move on from all the restrictions, he said.

“It’s been over a year,” he said. “I think it’s time.”

The new guidance is putting more responsibility on community members — “more ownership on us as individuals,” Taylor said.

“These are really becoming personal decisions” — given the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of enforcement, he said.

Some organizations aren’t ready to adopt the new guidance immediately.

Gates’ Empower3 primary care practice will discuss the changes in its Clinical Committee and “digest” their implications, Gates said.

AMED staffers will continue to mask as a “good precaution,” especially given that many patients are vulnerable, Watters said.

The Altoona Area School District will continue to follow masking and social distancing guidance issued by the state Department of Education, said spokeswoman Paula Foreman.

Penn State is reviewing the new rules and “plans to share more with our community shortly,” said spokesman Wyatt DuBois at University Park.

Masks will still be worn at UPMC, a spokesperson indicated.

“There are still many places and settings where masking is wise — in health care, in settings where those vulnerable are near, and in certain higher risk locations, like group transportation,” the organization stated in a news release.

UPMC is vaccinating “all community members ages 12 and above,” according to the news release. To make an appointment, call 844-876-2822 or visit vaccine.upmc.com.

AMED is also providing vaccinations, especially for the homebound, according to Watters. AMED’s phone number is 814-943-8993.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 814-949-7038.

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