The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Friday that most Americans can go indoors without wearing a mask, even in schools.
The much-anticipated change to agency's mask guidance doesn't rely as heavily on Covid-19 cases for a key measure. Instead, it gives more weight to local hospital capacity and hospitalizations.
More than half of all the country's counties are now at high or moderate risk for Covid. This means that masks are not necessary. These counties make up roughly 70% of the country's population.
This is a significant shift from the prior guidance that recommended masks in countries with high or substantial transmission. This category covered most of the country.
These recommendations are applicable to all, not just those who have been vaccinated or received a booster shot.
At a Friday briefing, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Director of the CDC, stated that the change reflects the lower risk of severe diseases from Covid due to widespread immunity, prior infection, improved testing and access to new treatments.
She stated, "We are in a stronger position today as a nation that has more tools to protect itself,"
The agency pointed out that even though they may not be in the same community, people at greater risk of Covid, or people living with others at risk, might still wish to take extra precautions such as wearing masks.
Those who want to continue wearing a mask may do so.
" People wearing a high-quality mask are well protected, even though others are not masking around them," Greta Masetti, a senior scientist with the agency, stated at the briefing.
Many states have lifted or announced plans for lifting their indoor mask directives. However, the CDC's recommendation could persuade any remaining skeptics who may not have been willing to relax mitigation measures until the agency approved them. It could also be a positive step for some states and districts that were reluctant to abolish mask mandates in schools.
Masks are required in many school district across the country. However, Massetti stated that the CDC has included schools in its new guidance as children are more likely to contract severe illness. Only high-risk communities are recommended by the agency to use universal masks in schools.
Covid can infect children, although they are more susceptible to mild or asymptomatic infections.
According to Dr. William Schaffner (infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville, Tennessee), the relaxed guidance is a good move.
He stated that "Cases and hospitalizations, as well as deaths, are trending down" and has been trending downward for a long time.
This guidance is an acceptable way to assess local risk, according to Dr. Cameron Wolfe. He is an infectious disease expert and associate professor of medicine at Duke University School of Medicine.
He said, "If you are sitting in a county health department or local hospital district and you want data to drive your decision and not just follow the political whims of your state, this gives you a really good framework to think about it."
This is not the end of the pandemic
Recent weeks have seen a significant drop in covid cases, due to record-breaking numbers driven by the omicron variation. According to NBC News, the average American is consuming 75,000 cases per day. This is a drop of 65 percent over two weeks ago.
However, a relaxation in the mask guidance "doesn’t mean this is the end," stated Bill Hanage (an associate professor of epidemiology) at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
"The virus will still be around. He said that the virus will still pose a threat to people and would likely get worse in fall and winter.
Uncertain is whether there will be a new variant, possibly one more transmissible than Omicron and more virulent as Delta.
Within weeks of its discovery, the dominant strain was taken over by the omicron variant. In January, a subtype was discovered. This sparked fears that the changes made to omicron might make it more contagious. According to CDC data, BA.2 prevalence has not increased significantly.
Schaffner stated that "we will need to be alert worldwide to the possibility that a new variant occurs somewhere in the world coming to us." "But I believe we can transition into a new norm."
Walensky stated that guidance could change in the future.
She stated that she wanted to provide people with a break from mask wearing during low levels and the ability to get them back if they need to in the future.
Do I still need a mask to go?
According to the Transportation Security Administration, masks will still need to be worn on interstate transportation systems such as planes, trains and buses, as well at airports. The mask mandate expires March 18.
TSA officials stated that the mask requirement is still in effect and they will continue to evaluate the validity of the requirement with CDC.
Masks may be required in some areas, such as hospitals or nursing homes, that have vulnerable patients.
Hanage stated that masks will continue to be a thing. "Some people will want to keep wearing masks, either because they are immunocompromised, or because they are vulnerable."
"We want to prevent the perception that masks no longer work anywhere.