Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House's top medical adviser on the coronavirus pandemic, gave a muddled answer on Wednesday when asked when children might stop wearing masks and return to normal pre-pandemic activities like playing at the playground.
Interviewed by NBC News' Savannah Guthrie on "Today," Fauci said that until children are vaccinated, their risk of infection from COVID-19 remains high while there are high levels of community infections reported. He would not say exactly when kids might play outside unmasked but his answer seemed to indicate CDC recommendations for children will not loosen until reported infectious cases nationwide sharply decrease.
The question about the coronavirus restrictions for kids came up after he responded to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's new mask-wearing guidelines for vaccinated American adults.
The new CDC guidance "means that we're going in the right direction … the risk of getting infected if you are vaccinated and outdoors is extremely low," Fauci said.
Asked by Guthrie if the CDC's recommendations should've gone further because of the minimal risk of catching COVID-19 outdoors, Fauci acknowledged that many people ask about that.
"The CDC tends to be a bit conservative but they do that because they want to make sure they get it completely right and err always on the side of safety," he told her.
He predicted that as more Americans are vaccinated and reported coronavirus infections sharply decline, the CDC's recommendations will become more flexible.
Guthrie's follow-up question revealed a personal motivation for asking about the CDC's hesitancy to loosen restrictions. She related a story about picking up her daughter at the bus stop and noted that as someone who's received her first dose of the vaccine she's allowed to walk outside without a mask but her unvaccinated daughter is not.
Guthrie appeared to misunderstand the CDC's recommendations, which indicate that an unvaccinated person like her daughter can "attend a small, outdoor gathering with fully vaccinated family and friends" without wearing a mask. Walking home from the bus stop with your mom would qualify as a situation where a child can take off her mask.
Nevertheless, Guthrie told Fauci "she had to wear her mask, I didn't on the walk home."
"When are kids going to be able to take off those masks and play outside at the playground?" Guthrie asked.
"You know, that's going to be the same thing that I mentioned a moment ago. It's going to be a situation — well first of all, kids will ultimately wind up getting vaccinated. But you want to have some activity in that direction before they do," said Fauci, not directly answering the question about when kids can play at the playground unmasked.
He explained that because children are not allowed to get vaccinated, "they are more at risk of getting infected because they are out in the community where there is a lot of infection. When the community level starts to go way down the risks to everybody, including the children, is going to be dramatically diminished."
He predicted that high school age minors will be eligible to receive the vaccine by this fall and that other children will be able to get vaccinated by the end of the year.
For now, Fauci told Guthrie that children can walk outdoors with other members of their household without wearing a mask, according to the CDC's new guidelines.