CDC Relaxes Mask Guidelines as WHO Considers Global Vaccine Passport

Sue Pelletier, Senior Editor

WASHINGTON, D.C. — In a step that some are heralding as the beginning of a shift to an endemic phase of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently announced changes to its guidelines that will allow most Americans to unmask indoors. The guidance update, which is based on a change in the metrics the CDC uses to determine county-by-county risk levels, means that mask recommendations now only apply to about half of U.S. counties.

“We are in a stronger place today as a nation with more tools today to protect ourselves and our community from COVID-19  like vaccination, boosters, broader access to testing, availability of high quality masks, accessibility to new treatments, and improved ventilation,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during a briefing announcing the change

“We have all hoped to get to this point where we see the pandemic starting to slow down,” Patty Olinger, Executive Director, Global Biorisk Advisory Council (GBAC), said. “Here in the U.S. our overall vaccination rates continue to rise. We are at a pivotal point in the pandemic, one that we knew we would eventually get to.”

Accordingly, most states have dropped their COVID-related restrictions. COVID-related restrictions also are easing internationally. On Feb. 28, France dropped its mask requirements for most venues that require people to show a vaccine passport to enter. A vaccine pass is still required for anyone  16 years or older who wants to enter a trade show venue.

One positive sign of the easing of European restrictions for trade shows is the success of the Mobile World Congress, held the first week of March 2022 in Barcelona. With Spain now allowing fully vaccinated travelers from anywhere in the world to enter without proof of a negative COVID test, more than 61,000 people from almost 200 countries flocked to the in-person piece of the show at Fira Barcelona, according to show organizers GSMA. While this was down from the 109,000 attendees they attracted in 2019, it was a big increase from the 20,000 who attended in person last year. After going fully virtual in 2020, MWC has been held in a hybrid format to accommodate both in-person and digital attendees.

Related. Trade Shows and Events Enter New Phase: COVID Mitigation

Though restrictions are easing in the U.S. and elsewhere, trade show organizers still need to face questions from exhibitors, attendees and their own staff, said Olinger. Are we ready to relax restrictions? Can I go out without a mask? Should we continue to clean, sanitize and disinfect? What should I know about ongoing needs for ventilation? “These are all valid questions that trade show organizers should take seriously,” Olinger said. “We must stay vigilant to safety-related questions that effect our exhibitors, our employees and our show attendees. Infection prevention, now and in the future, is something that we must add to the must have going forward.”

She added that associations such as GBAC/ISSA, IAEE and IAVM have provided guidance to help answer those questions for trade show organizers and the venues they use, from convention and conference centers to stadiums and arenas. “GBAC STAR-accredited facilities and service providers that service the show floor are ready to provide the necessary services that support the needs of the show or convention,” she said.

Regardless of regulation, “Hand hygiene and cleaning for health programs that include high-touchpoint disinfection are here to stay with us,” Olinger added. “Indoor air quality programs that support healthy buildings will be a focus for now and the future as well.”

WHO Considers International Passport

The World Health Organization (WHO) also is considering a move that could make it easier to travel internationally. According to Politico, WHO is convening a group of international experts to develop a “trust framework” that would allow countries to verify whether vaccine credentials are legitimate, Brian Anderson, chief digital health physician at MITRE and a co-founder of SMART Health Card backer VCI, told Politico.

This could mean that the current crazy quilt of international standards related to vaccination requirements may be coordinated into a sort of “international vaccine passport” that would make it easier to travel from country to country, similar to the digital COVID certificate standard already in place for European Union member nations.

Reach Patty Olinger at (678) 430-1044 or pattyo@issa.com