UPDATED: The CDC today made its expected announcement that relaxes mask requirements in most indoor spaces. The new guidance means that it’s now considered ok for most Americans to go maskless indoors in public, including those who are not vaccinated.
The announced recommendations indicate that Americans only need mask up indoors when their region’s healthcare system is in danger of being overwhelmed. Only 37% of the U.S. currently falls into that category, according to the CDC’s newly-altered thresholds indicating outbreak severity.
The new framework assessing outbreak severity mixes new hospitalizations for Covid-19, current hospital beds occupied due by Covid-19 patients — or hospital capacity — and new Covid cases. Based on those factors, communities are placed in either low, medium or high severity categories.
More specifically, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said that the calculation would be “based on fraction of hospitalizations that are Covid, number of admissions per 100,000 that are Covid and cases.”
It’s a switch from the country’s previous focus on case counts. It’s also an acknowledgement that, while the Omicron variant is more infectious and may spike infections, it’s not creating results as severe as those seen from Delta.
A CDC official indicated that 23% of U.S. counties are in the low category, 40% are in medium and 37% high. See an updated map of U.S. counties here or in adjacent graphic.
Only in regions qualifying for the high category are mask mandates recommended indoors at schools. The county classifications will be updated weekly.
“With widespread population immunity, the overall risk of severe disease is now generally lower,” said Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said on Friday. This updated approach focuses on directing our prevention efforts towards protecting people of high risk for severe illness and preventing hospitals and healthcare systems from being overwhelmed.”
PREVIOUSLY on Thursday: The Centers for Disease Control is expected to relax its masking guidance in most indoor spaces tomorrow, according to the Associated Press.
CDC director Rochelle Walensky also hinted at changes, writing on Twitter this afternoon: “At @CDCgov, we have been analyzing our #COVID19 data and shifting our focus to preventing the most severe outcomes and minimizing healthcare strain.”
Local health officials in California said today they were anticipating changes from the CDC, as well.
Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer, while briefing reporters today about a loosening of masking rules in the region, said “as early as tomorrow, we expect the CDC to release new framework for managing Covid-19.”
L.A. has pledged to keep certain masking restrictions in place until the county dips from the “widespread” to the “moderate” level of spread per the current CDC definitions.
While Ferrer today projected it would be mid-March before the county will meet those measures, she also said that the CDC revise “will include updated metrics.” Presumably those will be less stringent, given that Covid numbers are falling across the board in the U.S. That could help Los Angeles qualify much sooner, though Ferrer said the county would not lift its mandate immediately. She said local officials would want to study the recommendations, first.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday will announce a change to the metrics it uses to determine whether to recommend face coverings, shifting from looking at COVID-19 case counts to a more holistic view of risk from the coronavirus to a community. Under current guidelines, masks are recommended for people residing in communities of substantial or high transmission — roughly 95% of U.S. counties, according to the latest data.
Under the new guidelines, the vast majority of Americans will no longer live in areas where indoor masking in public is recommended, based on current data.
The CDC’s Walensky tweeted that currently “overall risk of severe disease due to #COVID19 is generally lower” than it was just a few weeks ago.
“Moving forward,” she wrote, “our approach will advise enhanced prevention efforts in communities with a high volume of severe illness and will also focus on protecting our healthcare systems from being overwhelmed.”
At @CDCgov, we have been analyzing our #COVID19 data and shifting our focus to preventing the most severe outcomes and minimizing healthcare strain.🧵
— Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH (@CDCDirector) February 24, 2022
Ferrer indicated that California’s announcement last week that it would lift most public masking requirements was a prelude to the CDC announcement.
“The state has also released a new framework in anticipation of the CDC framework,” she said today.
Earlier today, the CDC shared with clinicians newly-revised Covid vaccination guidelines for Americans ages 12-64, those people who are moderately to severely immunocompromised and those who had the Janssen vaccine. Read about that here.
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