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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / A sign promoting mask wearing is seen outside of the Trustee's office at the Hamilton County Courthouse on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Federal health officials this week released new guidelines for fully vaccinated people, saying they no longer need to wear face masks or socially distance to protect themselves from COVID-19. But with a local vaccination rate that lags behind the rest of the country, Hamilton County residents may wonder if it's safe for them to venture out without these precautions.

Although Hamilton County's mask mandate expired at the end of April, local officials still followed the lead of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by recommending that residents continue to wear face masks and socially distance indoors even though those practices were now voluntary.

However, the CDC on Thursday announced that the continued decline of COVID-19 cases nationally and mounting evidence of the vaccines' effectiveness was enough that people who are fully vaccinated could return to nearly all their pre-pandemic activities maskless.

There are some situations in which the CDC still recommends face masks even for those who are fully vaccinated, such as for patients and providers in health care settings. People whose immune systems are suppressed, such as cancer patients who are undergoing chemotherapy, should talk to their doctor before deciding not to mask.

States, localities and individual workplaces or businesses can continue to implement their own face mask requirements if they want, and many major retailers — such as Walmart and CVS — are still requiring masks for now.

Unvaccinated people should continue wearing masks to protect themselves and other unvaccinated people.

Becky Barnes, Hamilton County Health Department administrator, said via email the health department is reviewing the new CDC guidelines and will soon decide whether or not to update their recommendations for the community and their own internal mask policy.

Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly on Friday lifted mask restrictions for fully vaccinated residents in city buildings in most common situations and locations.

Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease specialist and professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, said on Friday as part of a series of experts organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science to respond to the new guidelines: "This new guidance is based on multiple studies that have shown the profound effectiveness of the vaccines to prevent both COVID-19 disease and transmission in the real world," including asymptomatic transmission.

"Therefore, if a vaccinated individual is highly protected and highly unlikely to transmit the infection to others after vaccination, lifting masking and distancing requirements for this population makes sense," Gandhi said.

Though it's possible for fully vaccinated people to still become infected with COVID-19, Gandhi said that the CDC keeps track of breakthrough infections — in which people contract COVID-19 after vaccination — and in the U.S, "the rate remains astoundingly low, even while COVID-19 is still circulating."

In the rare case that a breakthrough infection occurs, the overall risk of hospitalization and death among fully vaccinated people is much lower than among people with similar risk factors who are not vaccinated, according to the CDC.

"Vaccines are incredibly effective under real-world conditions," Gandhi said.

As of Friday, nearly 40% of Hamilton County residents had been at least partially vaccinated against COVID-19, and 34% had been fully vaccinated.

Over the past two weeks, new cases have declined 20%, with only 25 new COVID-19 cases reported Friday. At the same time, COVID-19 testing levels have increased 17%.

The number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized in the county has also declined 15% in the past two weeks, but the decline is even more significant when accounting for only Hamilton County residents.

Of the 48 COVID-19 patients in the county's hospitals, 12 of those were Hamilton County residents as of Friday, compared to 24 patients two weeks ago.

Hamilton County has the highest COVID-19 vaccination rate of any county in the region except for Meigs, which has fully vaccinated nearly 40% of its population, and nearly 46% has been at least partially vaccinated.

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or follow her on Twitter @ecfite.

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