Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, announced two weeks ago that vaccinated people no longer need to wear their masks. “Anyone who is fully vaccinated can participate in indoor and outdoor activities, large or small, without wearing a mask or physical distancing,” she said. That statement coupled with the approval of adolescents ages 12 and over, caused a surge of interest in people getting vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus. Within minutes, at a point in the day when visits on the site typically go down, the opposite happened.
The data obtained by CNN, that suggests the vaccine increase, comes from vaccines.gov, where people look up vaccination sites by ZIP code. On the afternoon of May 13, just after CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, announced the new guidelines, the number of visits to the site rose significantly enough to become the second highest in its history. To date, May 13 has turned out to be the busiest day yet for the website. That interest was sustained for about a week, with 1,972,434 visitors throughout the week, compared to 1,604,686 visits in the week before the mask guidance announcement.
“It’s amazing — really amazing,” said John Brownstein, PhD, professor at Boston-based Harvard Medical School, CIO at Boston Children’s Hospital and cofounder of VaccineFinder, which powers vaccines.gov.
Hours after Walensky’s announcement, Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, told CNN that “the decision that the CDC made was not as an incentive to get people vaccinated, but this could actually have the indirect effect of getting people to be incentivized to get vaccinated.” However, Brownstein said, based on the timing of the May 13 spike on vaccines.gov, it can be said that the Walensky announcement, and the subsequent presidential speech and tweet, were responsible for the increase.
“Today is a great day for America in our long battle with the coronavirus,” Biden said at 3:58 p.m. at a White House briefing. “I think it’s a great milestone. A great day.”
At 4:12 he tweeted: “The rule is now simple: get vaccinated or wear a mask until you do. The choice is yours.”
Shortly after Biden’s speech and tweet, vaccines.gov saw its second highest peak ever — just over 40,000 visitors — since the site launched on April 30. The highest peak was on May 4, with slightly more visitors, following a publicity campaign for the site’s launch.
“A spike in usage on vaccines.gov right at that moment tells us that relaxing certain restrictions informed some people’s decision to get the vaccine,” Brownstein said.
This shows incentives matter,” said Dr. Jonathan Reiner, professor of medicine and surgery at George Washington University School of Medicine. “People needed a carrot, and the carrot was the ability to drop the mask in most settings.”
So far, CDC data shows that the number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. has decreased steadily since May 13.