People.com Lifestyle Health CDC Defends Lifting the Mask Requirement, Says Only Unvaccinated People Are at Risk Without Them “If you are not vaccinated, you are not safe,” said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, as she urged those people to “get vaccinated or continue to wear your mask” By Julie Mazziotta Julie Mazziotta Twitter Associate Editor, PEOPLE Health People Editorial Guidelines Published on May 17, 2021 01:07 PM Share Tweet Pin Email Dr. Rochelle Walensky. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty The director of the Centers for Disease Control and top health experts spent the weekend defending the agency's decision to lift mask requirements for fully vaccinated people, emphasizing that only unvaccinated people are at risk without a mask. Amid concerns that unvaccinated people would abuse the new mask recommendations and worries that it was too early for Americans to start going without them, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said that fully vaccinated people are at a very low risk of COVID-19 infection. Data from These 4 Studies Convinced the CDC to Let Vaccinated People Ditch Their Masks "If you are vaccinated, we are saying you are safe, you can take up your mask and you are not at risk of severe disease or hospitalization from COVID-19," she told Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace. "If you are not vaccinated, you are not safe. Please go get vaccinated or continue to wear your mask." The CDC was criticized after recommending on Thursday that fully vaccinated people can go without masks outdoors and in most indoor settings, with people suggesting that the federal health agency made the surprising change after political pressure. But Walensky emphasized that new data on the effectiveness of the vaccines led to their decision. People with and without masks walk around Central Park in New York City. Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty "It certainly would've been easier if the science had evolved a week earlier, and I didn't have to go to Congress making those statements," Walensky said, referencing her testimony a few days earlier in front of the Senate Health Committee, where Republicans argued against the CDC's then-strict mask guidance. "I delivered it as soon as I can, when we have that information available," she said. PEOPLE Staffers Share Symptoms, Sheer Joy After COVID Vaccine: 'I Felt 'Walking on Sunshine'-Style Elation' Walensky was also questioned about the potential risks the new mask guidance poses to grocery store workers who now could be exposed to unvaccinated people who refuse to wear a mask, as Walmart, Costco and Trader Joe's all lifted their mask requirements. "Probably the most important thing that businesses could do right now … is to work to ensure that it's easy for their own employees to get vaccinated," she said on Meet the Press. RELATED VIDEO: Vaccinated Americans Can Now Go Without Masks in Most Indoor and Outdoor Places, CDC Says As of May 17, well over half, or 56.1% of eligible Americans, those aged 12 and up, have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. And 43.9%, or nearly 123 million of eligible Americans, are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the CDC. New COVID-19 cases in the U.S. are also on a steep decline, with the country seeing an average of just over 33,000 infections a day, a number that has dropped by 33% over the last two weeks, according to The New York Times. All 50 states are now seeing a decline in cases as more Americans get vaccinated. As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from the CDC, WHO and local public health departments. PEOPLE has partnered with GoFundMe to raise money for the COVID-19 Relief Fund, a GoFundMe.org fundraiser to support everything from frontline responders to families in need, as well as organizations helping communities. For more information or to donate, click here.