Most Americans live in places where healthy people, including students in schools, can safely take a break from wearing masks according to new US guidelines released Friday.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has outlined a new set of measures for communities as COVID-19 loosens its grip, with less focus on positive test results and more on what’s happening in hospitals.
The new system dramatically changes the appearance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s risk map and places more than 70 percent of the US population in counties where the coronavirus poses a low or moderate threat to hospitals. These are the people who can stop wearing masks, the agency said.
The agency still advises people, including schoolchildren, to wear masks where the risk of contracting COVID-19 is high. This is the situation in about 37 percent of US counties, where about 28 percent of Americans live.
The new recommendations do not change the requirement to wear masks on public transport and indoors at airports, train stations and bus stations.
Nearby, Canada’s chief public health official, Theresa Tam, said Friday she hopes Canada has passed the pandemic crisis and is now in a transitional phase heading toward recovery.
But she said Canada should be prepared to bring back some public health measures if the number of cases starts to rise sharply again.
Essential for people with COVID or symptoms
In the US, the CDC’s new guidelines for other indoor spaces are not binding, which means cities and institutions even in low-risk areas may set their own rules.
The agency says that people with symptoms of COVID-19 or who have tested positive for the virus should not stop wearing masks.
But with increased protection from immunity — whether from vaccination or infection — the overall risk of developing severe disease is now lower overall, the CDC said.
“A person should definitely wear a mask at any time if they feel safer wearing the mask,” Dr. Rochelle Wallinsky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a news briefing.
“We want to make sure our hospitals are okay and people don’t get severely ill. …Anyone can go to the CDC website, see the scale of the disease in their community and make that decision.”
Some states, including Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Jersey, are at low to moderate risk while others such as West Virginia, Kentucky, Florida and Arizona still have large areas at high levels of concern.
The CDC’s previous transmission prevention guidelines for communities focused on two metrics — the rate of new COVID-19 cases and the percentage of positive test results during the previous week.
Based on these measures, agency officials have advised people to wear masks indoors in counties where the spread of the virus is considered significant or high. As of this week, more than 3,000 of the country’s more than 3,200 counties – more than 95 percent – are listed as having high or high transmission under these measures.
However, this guidance has been increasingly ignored, as states, cities, counties, and school districts across the US have announced plans to drop mask mandates amid a decline in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
More waves of infection to come?
With so many Americans already taking off their masks, changing the CDC wouldn’t make much practical difference right now, said Andrew Noemer, a professor of public health at the University of California, Irvine. But he said it would help when the next wave of infections – likely in the fall or winter – starts to threaten the hospital’s capacity again.
“There will be more waves of COVID,” Neumer said. “And so I think it makes sense to give people a break from wearing masks.” “If we have constant concealment orders, it could become a complete joke by the time we really need it again.”
The CDC provides a color-coded map – With counties marked as orange, yellow or green – to help guide local officials and residents. In green counties, local officials can forgo any indoor concealment rules. The yellow color means that people at high risk of developing severe disease should be careful. Orange indicates places where the CDC suggests concealment should be universal.
How a county is designated green, yellow, or orange will depend on the rate of new hospital admissions for COVID-19, the share of staffed hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients and the rate of new cases in the community.
Taking hospital data into account has shifted some counties — such as Boulder County in Colorado — from high to low risk.
Mask requirements have already expired in most of the United States in recent weeks. Los Angeles on Friday began allowing people to remove their masks while indoors if they have been vaccinated, and indoor mask mandates will be lifted in Washington and Oregon in late March.
Dr. Marcus Plesia of the Association of State and County Health Officials said state health officials are generally pleased with the new directive and “excited about how it is coming up.”
“This is the way we need to go. I think this is moving us forward in a new direction that is going in the pandemic,” Plesia said. “But we remain focused on safety. We remain focused on preventing death and disease.”
The CDC said the new system would be useful in predicting future surges and urged communities with wastewater monitoring systems to use this data as well.
“If new variants emerge or the virus spreads, or when it does, we have more ways to protect ourselves and our communities than ever before,” Walinsky said.