Despite new guidance, many remain confused over mask enforcement, whether or not to wear them

ATLANTA — Less than a week after the CDC declared vaccinated people can essentially go mask-free, there’s still debate confusion over the practicality of enforcement, honesty and a deep divide in people’s beliefs .

“I just think it’s crazy either way it goes,” said Katrina Washington, who was parked along Piedmont Park Monday. “People are going to [get] vaccinated, they’re not gonna get vaccinated. People are gonna wear the mask and people are not gonna wear the mask.”

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Washington is among the 70% of Georgians who are not fully vaccinated. She says she doesn’t typically wear a mask nor does she believe in taking the actual vaccine. She says it’s a social construct that leads her to keep a mask around her at all times.

“For me, I just do it as a courtesy to other people when I see they have it on,” she said.

On Sunday, the Georgia Department of Public Health tweeted a message encouraging even fully vaccinated people to mask in public.

In a statement Monday, GaDPH pointed toward state data on vaccinations as the basis for the messaging.

“Science tells us that COVID vaccines are effective in preventing infection and reducing serious illness if you do get sick,” the statement read. " Currently, 70% of Georgians are not fully vaccinated, which means every crowd is a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals and the risk of COVID transmission exists.”

“Until more Georgians are fully vaccinated, the best protection against COVID-19 remains vaccination and basic prevention measures in public – wear a mask, social distance, and wash your hands frequently. The bottom line is “say YES!” to COVID vaccine and get back to doing the things we’ve all missed,” the statement continued.

“I do think it would be beneficial if [health officials would] just come out with one rule for everyone,” said Brandi Spano, a New Yorker visiting Atlanta Monday. “But I guess if not everyone’s vaccinated yet, it’s gotta be difficult to figure that out.”

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Dr. Amber Schmidtke, an immunologist and former state data advisor, has been tracking Georgia’s COVID-19 trends since the beginning of the pandemic.

“In many ways I do wish [CDC guidance] had been tied to a metric like [vaccination rates], or that we’d been given an advanced warning so that people could prepare or those who wanted the vaccine could really work hard to get that appointment done,” Dr. Schmidtke said.

The science behind the CDC guidance is clear, she said. The idea that an honor system will support that guidance is not.

“We know there are a lot of people who have discounted the pandemic the whole time, and the [CDC] announcement didn’t really take that into consideration,” Dr. Schmidtke said Monday.

“And what’s unfortunate is usually public health communication really does think through the potential unintended consequences and, unfortunately, it just doesn’t seem like that happened in this case,” she continued.

Dr. Schmidtke pointed toward the immunocompromised and young children who are not yet vaccine eligible as areas of concern, as many retailers, school systems and other workplaces begin to drop mask mandates sans plans to verify the vaccinated.

She said schools can verify vaccination status without violating HIPPA, as they do with other vaccination requirements. The privacy law is often misinterpreted, she said, adding it applies to healthcare provider disclosures. The impact of relying on that vaccination honor system coupled with dropping mask mandates before everyone is eligible for vaccines is yet to be seen.

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“We do know children can get COVID-19,” Dr. Schmidtke said. " We know they can transmit COVID-19 and we know that schools historically, even before the pandemic, were little incubators for diseases. That’s just what they are; any parent can tell you. So we’ll just have to see what happens here.”

COVID-19 cases continue to decline in Georgia, and with the new guidance, Dr. Schmidtke says a key progress point will come soon.

“I really think if we can get to July 4th without a surge that—I wouldn’t say we’re home free—but we’re in a lot better shape by that time.”