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N.H.'s Top Epidemiologist Says He Has Concerns About CDC's Looser Mask Guidance

New Hampshire’s top epidemiologist says he’s not certain the time is right for the CDC’s new guidance that vaccinated people can go maskless or stop maintaining social distance in most settings.

The CDC’s surprise announcement Thursday is a departure from the agency’s previous recommendations. But CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said recent studies on the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines helped prompt the loosening of mask-wearing guidance.

Dr. Benjamin Chan, state epidemiologist with the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, said, while moving away from mask-wearing is inevitable as more people are vaccinated, now may not be the right moment to do so.

"This is where we're going, in the pandemic, is pulling back on these types of recommendations,” Chan said at a press conference with Gov. Chris Sununu and state health officials Thursday afternoon. “The difficult choices have always been on what the correct timing is."

“I have concerns about pulling back on some of the recommendations at this time, because of some of the issues that have been highlighted," Chan said. "There’s also a lot of logistical questions that come to mind with this kind of change. This is a big change.”

One logistical challenge Chan pointed to was how business would know if unmasked people were indeed fully vaccinated or not.

Chan said he wasn’t yet sure whether the state would adopt the CDC’s new mask recommendation, and said New Hampshire health officials will review the new guidance in the context of their own data. Current state guidance recommends people wear a mask or other cloth face covering “any time they are in public spaces, indoors or outdoors, where they are unable to or do not consistently maintain a physical distance of at least six feet from persons outside their own households.”

New Hampshire had a statewide mask mandate requiring people to wear masks in all public spaces until mid-April, when Sununu allowed it to expire. At the time, Chan did not publicly question or raise concerns about that decision, though he did stress the importance of continued mask wearing.

New Hampshire recorded 222 new COVID-19 infections Thursday, and 62 people hospitalized with the disease. Four new deaths related to COVID-19 were also reported Thursday.

Dan is NHPR's news director.
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