Updated February 25, 2022 9:03 PM ET
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Friday that it is relaxing its mask guidelines for communities where hospitals are not under heavy pressure. According to the new guidelines, almost 70% of the American population lives in an area considered low or medium riskand residents are advised that they can go inside without a mask.
The CDC recommends continued mask use in communities where severe COVID-19 cases are straining the healthcare system.
The decision to relax masking, federal officials say, reflects current conditions at this phase of the coronavirus pandemic, including widespread immunity through vaccination and prior infection as well as better access to testing and treatments.
“We want to give people a break from things like mask-wearing,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said at a Friday press conference. But, she added, the new risk guidelines the agency is implementing will help people know when to seek masks again if conditions warrant.
Health officials have stressed that people should still wear face coverings if they choose or if they are personally at high risk. And regardless of local conditions, they should mask if they have COVID-19 symptoms or test positive or have been exposed to someone with COVID-19.
As part of the change, the CDC is dropping its recommendation for universal school masking and will instead recommend masking only in high-risk communities.
The agency’s new guidelines for assessing community risk, released Friday, weigh hospitalizations for COVID-19 and the proportion of beds occupied by COVID-19 patients in local hospitals more heavily than rates of new infections alone.
“As the virus continues to circulate in our communities, we must focus our actions beyond just cases in the community and direct our efforts towards protecting those at high risk of severe illness and preventing COVID-19 from overwhelming our communities. hospitals and our healthcare system,” says Walensky.
The agency has changed course on masking several times during the pandemic. In May last yearhe announced guidelines that fully vaccinated people could safely stop wearing masks indoors, only to reverse this advice two months later, as the delta variant of the coronavirus increased and breakthrough cases increased.
At this point, the CDC said indoor masking was advised in parts of the United States with “substantial” or “high” spread of the virus, which it defined as 50 to 100, or 100 or plus, respectively, new weekly cases per 100,000 people. .
Although cases are rapidly declining across the country, currently about 95% of counties are still experiencing these “substantial” or “high” levels of spread, according to the CDC’s old risk measures, which were primarily based on new cases.
According to the CDC’s new measurements, which it calls “COVID-19 Community Levels” an area is considered “high” risk if it has concerning levels of COVID-19 hospital admissions and hospital capacity occupied by COVID-19 patients.
About 38% of US counties fall into this new high-risk category, where mask-wearing is recommended, but those counties represent only 28% of the population.
The CDC will issue an update risk levels by county weekly on its website, officials said. You can explore your county’s current level using the graph above.
Many public health experts say the shift in focus makes sense in the context of falling case rates and the widespread availability of COVID-19 vaccines.
“I think we are moving towards a pragmatic strategy, a strategy that recognizes that those who want to protect themselves have all the tools available to them,” says Dr. Ali Khanformer CDC official and now dean of the University of Nebraska: ‘There are free vaccines, free masks, free tests and free antivirals.’
Khan says it is now up to communities and individuals to determine what steps to take to protect themselves and those around them.
It makes sense for the CDC to put in place shared measures to understand the risk, Khan says, “and then locally [for communities] make decisions to relax mask guidelines based on local conditions: how well people are vaccinated, how many people are going to the hospital, what kind of absenteeism you have [among hospital staff].”
Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, says the new risk levels give people a way to reflect on the pandemic as we move forward. “I think it’s a good roadmap,” he says. “It gives us a way to go up or down the spectrum depending on what might change in the future, and most of us think we’re still going to have recurring outbreaks of this disease in the community.”
On the other hand, the new risk measures, which now include a combination of case levels, hospitalizations and hospital capacity, are not easy to understand, notes Dr. David Dowdy, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University.
“I’m always a bit concerned when orientation becomes more complicated than simple,” he says. “I understand the desire to incorporate both cases and hospital admissions and perhaps even staffed hospital beds. But trying to come up with a formula like this is likely to make it difficult for people to implement these guidelines in real time.”
He says the focus could perhaps have simply been on new hospital admissions, which he calls “a near real-time indicator of when severe cases are starting to rise again.”
Still, he says, it’s a reasonable time in the pandemic to ditch precautions like mask-wearing.
Will Stone contributed to this report.
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