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CDC unveils new mask guidelines, easing pandemic restrictions

Americans can forgo masks indoors, unless community transmission rates are high, under the new guidelines

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention loosened federal mask-wearing requirements throughout the U.S. on Friday.

With a new three-tier framework, the updated guidelines signal a more relaxed era of the pandemic for approximately 70% of Americans who live in counties where transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19 is considered low or medium risk.

The the CDC no longer requires indoor masking in such areas, it does for areas where COVID-19 transmission rates are high and health care systems are strained. 

“This framework moves beyond new cases and test positivity,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Friday at a press event. “The intent of the community guidance is to look at severe disease, people who are coming into the hospital.”

Walensky cited better access to vaccinations, boosters, high-quality testing, N95 masks and better treatment pending infection as reasons for the changes Friday. She noted that more than 200 million people have received a primary vaccine series, 100 million have been boosted, and that millions more have already contracted the virus. 

“With widespread immunity the overall risk of severe disease is now generally lower,” Walensky said.

Shifting from focusing heavily on new infection rates, the new guidelines instead take into account the number of hospitalizations driven by COVID-19 and the percentage of hospital beds these patients are taking up in the hospitals. The new framework designates counties by low, medium, and high classification levels — color-coded green, yellow, and red, accordingly.

The change also notably drops the CDC’s recommendation that schools mandate universal masking policies, unless the community the school is in is considered high risk.

While the Omicron COVID-19 variant caused a spike in cases at the beginning of the year due to its highly transmissible nature, it led to fewer cases of severe COVID-19.

“This updated approach focuses on protecting people at high risk for severe illness and preventing hospitals and health care systems from being overwhelmed,” Walensky said, noting that information about a community’s level of hospitalization will be available at cdc.gov.

Around 95% of U.S. counties were recommended to follow indoor masking guidelines per the previous CDC framework, which recommended mask wearing for people in communities with substantial or high transmission rates.

Greta Massetti, a member of the COVID-19 Response Incident Management Team also spoke Friday on the new rules.

“Regardless of level, we continue to recommend that people stay up to date on vaccines and get tested if they are sick,” Massetti said.

“There are some situations where people should always wear a mask,” Massetti continued. “For example, if they have symptoms if they tested positive for COVID-19 or if they have been exposed to someone with COVID-19.”

New COVID-19 cases have dropped sharply in the last month. While the U.S. saw more than a million new cases on Jan. 24, one month later on Feb. 24 it saw just a little more than 73,000.

This is not the first time the Biden administration has dropped its masking recommendations. Last year in May, it gave fully vaccinated people the greenlight to stop masking indoors, reversing the permission just two months later when the Delta variant emerged and COVID-19 cases rose once more.

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Gene Moreland/TucsonSentinel.com

While the U.S. saw more than a million new cases on Jan. 24, one month later on Feb. 24 it saw just a little more than 73,000.