Update 4:35 p.m. ET 2/25/2022: The CDC issued its new guidance Friday afternoon. Its criteria for assessing the risk of covid-19 to a community will, as expected, no longer solely consider the level of transmission in an area but will also depend on the rate of new hospitalized covid-19 patients and the share of hospital beds occupied by them. As a result, over 70% of U.S. counties are now considered to be in a low-to-medium-risk region. The CDC will no longer ask that people in these areas wear masks.
The guidelines do not supersede existing requirements in many areas to wear masks in airports, public transit, and medical facilities, and both cities and private businesses can maintain their existing mandates if they wish, the agency said. People can of course continue to wear masks if they choose, CDC director Rochelle Walensky said in a briefing held today, though there is now a revised CDC map that people can consult to make that decision. “Anybody is certainly welcome to wear a mask at any time if they feel safer wearing a mask,” Walensky said. “We want to make sure our hospitals are OK and people are not coming in with severe disease.”
Original article appears below.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reportedly gearing up to lift recommendations for mask-wearing. The exact revisions to the guidance are still unclear, but the Associated Press reports that most Americans will no longer be asked to wear masks indoors. The changes are the latest sign that the U.S. and many other countries are hoping to put pandemic-related policies behind them sooner rather than later.
The planned change in guidelines was first reported Thursday night by the AP, which said that the CDC will change its criteria for recommending masks some time on Friday. Previously, the CDC took into account the level of reported covid-19 cases in an area when recommending mask use. While the amount of transmission in a region will reportedly still matter somewhat, the new criteria will now emphasize local hospitalizations instead, the AP reported, citing two unnamed sources supposedly familiar with the matter. As a result, it’s likely that most Americans will no longer reside in an area where masking will be recommended, at least currently.
The changes were foreshadowed by CDC Director Rochelle Walensky in recent days. At a White House briefing last week, she alluded to the CDC considering “hospital capacity as an additional important barometer,” though no specific timetable was given for any policy changes. The AP reports that the new guidelines could be formally announced as early as today.
The expected change comes amid a genuine downturn in covid-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths throughout the U.S. in the last few weeks. During this time, many states and cities have recently loosened or abandoned local mask mandates. Other countries like Norway, Denmark, and the UK have also recently announced their own phasing-out of most covid-related measures like indoor crowd limits or isolation recommendations following a confirmed infection.
Notably, of course, this is not the first time the CDC has tried to wind down its masking advice. Last spring, during a similar lull in the pandemic, the CDC announced it would no longer ask vaccinated people to wear masks in most scenarios. By early summer, however, the Delta variant of the coronavirus arrived in the U.S. and sparked another large wave of the pandemic, though this remained concentrated among the unvaccinated and unexposed, and the CDC again asked vaccinated people to mask up in areas of high transmission. This past winter, both the Delta and Omicron variants—the latter more able to infect previously vaccinated or infected people—caused the largest case surge and second deadliest peak of the pandemic seen in the U.S. to date.
Unlike the U.S., many countries easing their pandemic policies have faced much less severe illness and death during this latest Omicron-led wave of the pandemic than in the past, thanks largely to high rates of vaccination and/or previous infection. In explaining why they’re no longer enforcing many pandemic-related public health measures, health officials in Denmark, for example, said they’re confident that they have now neutered covid-19 to the point where it’s no longer a threat to their society. Whether the same will hold true for the U.S. remains to be seen.