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. Under the new guidelines, nearly 70% of the US population lives in areas considered low or medium risk and residents are told 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 guidelines, federal officials say, reflects current conditions at this phase of the 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 briefing, adding that the new risk guidelines the agency is implementing will help people know when to look for masks again if conditions warrant.
Health officials have stressed that people should always wear masks if they choose to or if they are personally at high risk. And regardless of local conditions, they should mask up if they have symptoms of COVID-19, 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 new guidelines for assessing community risk, released on 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 serious illness and preventing COVID 19 from overwhelming our hospitals. and our healthcare system,” says Walensky.
The agency has changed course on masking several times during the pandemic. In May last year it announced guidelines that fully vaccinated people could safely stop wearing masks indoors, only to reverse that advice two months later as the delta variant increased and the breakthrough cases were increasing.
At this point, the CDC said indoor masking was advised in areas of the country with “substantial or high” spread of the virus, which it defined as 50 to 100 or more new weekly cases per 100,000. people.
Although cases are rapidly declining in the United States, currently about 95% of counties are still experiencing these “substantial or high” levels of spread – according to the CDC’s old risk measures, based mainly on new cases.
According to the CDC’s new risk measures, an area is considered “high” risk if it has concerning levels of COVID hospital admissions and hospital capacity occupied by COVID 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.
Many public health experts say the change in direction makes sense — against the backdrop of falling case rates and the widespread availability of COVID-19 vaccines.
“I think we are moving towards a pragmatic strategy, which recognizes that those who want to protect themselves have all the tools available,” says Dr. Ali Khan, former 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, says Khan, “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].”
Since fully vaccinated and boosted people are generally well protected against serious illnesses, Khan says masking requirements in highly vaccinated communities are intended to protect the unvaccinated and reduce their impact on health care capacity.
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