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CDC Eases Some Mask Ruless For ‘Healthy’ Americans As Focus Shifts Away From Case Numbers to Hospitalizations

CDC Eases Some Mask Ruless For ‘Healthy’ Americans As Focus Shifts Away From Case Numbers to Hospitalizations

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has outlined a new set of measures for communities where COVID-19 is easing its grip, with less of a focus on positive test results and more on what’s happening at hospitals. Most Americans live in places where healthy people, including students in schools, can safely take a break from wearing masks under the updated U.S. guidelines released on Friday.

The new recommendations do not change the requirement to wear masks on public transportation and indoors in airports, train stations, and bus stations. The CDC guidelines for other indoor spaces aren’t binding, meaning cities and institutions even in areas of low risk may set their own rules. And the agency says people with COVID-19 symptoms or who test positive shouldn’t stop wearing masks. And the CDC is still advising people, including schoolchildren, to wear masks where the risk of COVID-19 is high. That’s the situation in about 37% of U.S. counties, where about 28% of Americans live.

The CDC’s previous transmission-prevention guidance to communities focused on two measures: the rate of new COVID-19 cases and the percentage of positive test results over the previous week. Based on those measures, CDC officials advised people to wear masks indoors in counties where the spread of the virus was deemed “substantial or high”. As of this week, more than 3,000 of the nation’s more than 3,200 counties (which is greater than 95%) were listed as having substantial or high transmission under those measures. Unfortunately, that guidance has increasingly been ignored, however, with states, cities, counties, and school districts across the U.S. announcing plans to drop mask mandates amid declining COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

The CDC is offering a color-coded map — with counties designated as orange, yellow, or green — to help guide local officials and residents. In green counties, local officials can drop any indoor masking rules. Yellow means people at high risk for severe disease should be cautious. Orange designates places where the CDC suggests masking should be universal. How a county comes to be designated green, yellow or orange will depend on its rate of new COVID-19 hospital admissions, the share of staffed hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients, and the rate of new cases in the community.

Mask requirements already have ended in most of the U.S. in recent weeks. Los Angeles on Friday began allowing people to remove their masks while indoors if they are vaccinated, and indoor mask mandates in Washington State and Oregon will be lifted in mid-to-late March. Oregon Governor Kate Brown also announced an end to her state’s emergency declaration effective April 1st.

With many Americans already taking off their masks, the CDC’s shift won’t make much practical difference–for now, says Andrew Noymer, a public health professor at the University of California, Irvine. But it will help when the next wave of infection (a likelihood in the fall or winter) starts threatening hospital capacity again, he said. “There will be more waves of COVID. And so I think it makes sense to give people a break from masking,” Professor Noymer said. “If we have continual masking orders, they might become a total joke by the time we really need them again.”

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