Biden touts new CDC mask guidance as 'a great day for America'

President Joe Biden on Thursday touted new mask guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as "a great day for America" and an important milestone in the US coronavirus response. By Paul LeBlanc and Kaitlan Collins, CNN

(CNN) -- President Joe Biden on Thursday touted new mask guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as "a great day for America" and an important milestone in the US coronavirus response.

Appearing maskless during remarks in the White House Rose Garden, Biden said, "You have endured all this. When your country asked you to get vaccinated, you did. The American people stepped up. You did what I consider to be your patriotic duty. That's how we have gotten to this day."

His comments came hours after the CDC announced that people who are fully vaccinated against Covid-19 do not need to wear masks or practice social distancing indoors or outdoors, except under certain circumstances.

In a sign of the Biden administration's embrace of the guidance, the White House emailed staffers Thursday telling them they no longer have to wear a mask on the complex's grounds if they are vaccinated, an official told CNN.

"If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic," Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during a White House Covid-19 briefing. "We have all longed for this moment when we can get back to some sense of normalcy."

Calling it an "exciting and powerful moment," Walensky said the science supports the updated CDC guidance that "anyone who is fully vaccinated can participate in indoor and outdoor activities -- large or small -- without wearing a mask or physical distancing."

White House officials were surprised when the CDC informed them Wednesday around 9 p.m. ET that the agency was changing its guidance for fully vaccinated people, multiple sources told CNN.

Officials had not expected the CDC to release new masking guidance for at least several more days, and also did not anticipate how far-reaching the guidance would be, given the CDC's cautious track record.

But that is exactly how the White House wants these situations to be handled, after Biden came into office vowing to restore the CDC's independence.

"We're so sensitive about not talking about the content of what they're doing that it's not always easy to predict," a senior official said.

Walensky made the ultimate decision to update the recommendations after meeting with other CDC officials Wednesday. She then briefed Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra that afternoon and informed the White House about the change Wednesday evening, the sources said.

The late-night information set off a scramble inside the White House to roll out the guidance on Thursday, with an announcement during the day's coronavirus briefing and plans made for the President to address the country from the Rose Garden afterward.

Walensky met with White House officials Thursday morning to discuss the guidance and prepare for the questions she would likely face about it during the afternoon coronavirus briefing -- a process that one official described as "pressure-testing" the new guidance. After the session, Walensky felt prepared to move forward.

While Biden trumpeted the new guidance Thursday, he still stressed the need to continue vaccinating at an aggressive clip in order to drive transmission numbers lower.

"We aren't done yet, we're still losing too many Americans because we still have too many unvaccinated people. We have to get to 70% of adults started on vaccinations by July the Fourth. We have to take this pandemic -- tackle it. Not just here but overseas as well, to truly be safe in the long run," he said. "There's still more work ahead. But I have said many times, as tough as this pandemic has been, we will get through it."

About 45% of US adults are fully vaccinated against Covid-19, according to data published Wednesday by the CDC. If vaccinations continue at the current pace, 70% of adults will have received at least one dose of Covid-19 vaccine by the second week of June.

In the meantime, the President urged Americans to treat those who continue to wear a mask with "kindness and respect."

"We have had too much conflict, too much bitterness, too much anger, too much politicization of this issue about wearing masks. Let's put it to rest," he said.

"Let's remember, we're all Americans. Let's remember that we are all in this together. If you're fully vaccinated, and can take your mask off, you have earned the right to do something that Americans are known for all around the world -- greeting others with a smile," he said.

This story has been updated with additional information Thursday.

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