Associated Press File Photo / A pharmacy technician loads a syringe with Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine at a mass vaccination site at the Portland Expo in Portland, Maine, in March.

On May 16, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced: "If you are fully vaccinated [against the COVID-19 virus], you can resume activities that you did prior to the pandemic." That guidance included the ditching of "wearing a mask or physically distancing, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance."

Millions of loyal, mask-wearing, vaccinated Americans celebrated, and millions of non-mask-wearing (except where required), unvaccinated Americans received their get-out-of-jail-free card.

The latter group didn't bother to listen to all of the CDC guidance, which suggested non-vaccinated people should continue wearing masks.

Nor will they heed voices like that of Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly, who said, "Get vaccinated or wear a mask. It's your choice." Or that of University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Chancellor Steven Angle, whose statement said, "The CDC encourages those who have not been vaccinated to wear masks outside when social distancing is not possible, and wear masks inside buildings unless inside a private space such as their office by themselves."

The recent news, while welcomed, scares many Americans, frankly, because they know it differs widely from what they've been told for months. And they know that few places, if any, will police people not wearing a mask. Walmart, Target, Publix, Costco, CVS and Starbucks all have dropped their mask requirements, with most echoing Target's suggestion that "face coverings will continue to be strongly recommended for guests and team members who are not fully vaccinated."

As of Tuesday morning, 37.5% of Americans had been fully vaccinated. About 48% of Americans have had at least one dose.

But here's what Americans have been told for the last eight months by Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical adviser to the president:

* Sept. 21, 2020: "[A] combination of an effective vaccine and adherence to certain public-health principles will get us to the point where we want to be, by the end of 2021. ... You never should abandon the public-health measures."

* November 2020: "I would recommend to people to not abandon all public health measures just because you have been vaccinated." Those fundamentals include: universal wearing of masks, maintaining physical distance, avoiding large crowds, doing more outdoor activities and washing hands frequently.

* Dec. 15, 2020: "I don't believe we're going to be able to throw the masks away and forget about physical separation in congregate settings for a while, probably likely until we get into the late fall and early next winter. ... By the time we get to the fall, we can start approaching ... some form of normality." But mask usage is likely to continue "several months into the second half and beyond of 2021."

* Feb. 21, 2021: "As we get into the fall and winter, by the end of the year ... we will be approaching a degree of normality." Still, it's "possible" Americans may have to continue to wear face masks in 2022.

* March 21, 2021: The results of a vaccination study will be released in five months, so Americans should "hold on for just a little longer" because if people put masks aside now, the country is likely to see a surge.

At this point, we won't speculate what, if any, political calculations went into the CDC's new guidance. But vaccinations have been sought by fewer Americans than experts predicted. The number is nowhere near the 70-80% herd immunity percentage a Dec. 30, 2020, Houston Methodist hospital online article suggested would be needed to stop public health measures. And the virus continues to rage, with Tennessee recording 12 deaths and Georgia 21 deaths Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Fauci — in addition to his initial proclamation in March 2020 that masks wouldn't be needed at all — now says people are misinterpreting the CDC's guidance.

No joke.

"I think people are misinterpreting, thinking that this is a removal of a mask mandate for everyone," he told Axios. "It's not."

But then he let off all those with the get-out-of-jail-free card.

"It's not their fault," Fauci said. "People either read [the guidance] quickly, or listen and hear half of it."

Or they never listened in the first place. And aren't listening now. And won't wear a mask any longer, no matter how it's suggested.

The only way to combat those people is to get fully vaccinated. And then 14 months of confusing statements by the CDC, by Fauci about masks won't matter so much anymore.