The CDC Changed Its Masking Guidelines — Here’s What It Means For You

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The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced new guidance on face masks today as the US continues to shift its strategy towards the COVID-19 pandemic. In essence, the CDC will now consult new metrics to determine whether a community should enforce indoor masking, looking at COVID-19 hospital admissions, overall hospital capacity, and new COVID-19 cases as the deciding factors. The result? Currently, only about 28 percent of people in the US live in a county where they’d be recommended to wear a mask indoors, per the CDC’s new metrics. The universal masking recommendation for schools has been dropped as well.

Explaining the decision to ease up on masks, CDC director Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, told reporters, “We want to give people a break from things like mask-wearing when our levels are low, and then have the ability to reach for them again if things get worse in the future.” Previously, case counts were used as the sole measuring stick for whether Americans should mask up. Now, though, the vaccine is widely available, and the waves of infection that came with the Omicron and Delta variants resulted in mostly mild symptoms that didn’t require hospitalization. The Omicron variant infected a large proportion of the country as well, which has temporarily boosted overall immunity in the US.

Still, the CDC recommends that people at high risk of severe COVID-19 or complications should consider extra precautions, such as talking to a doctor about wearing a mask indoors and other safety measures. The new guidance is also meant to be flexible enough to cover potential future outbreaks, variants, and changes in the pandemic. “None of us know what the future holds for us and for this virus,” Dr. Walensky said. “And we need to be prepared and we need to be ready for whatever comes next.”

The CDC’s website features a map of US counties and current COVID-19 levels and breaks down how the levels — low, medium, and high — are determined. Indoor masking is no longer recommended in low- and medium-level counties.

How Does the CDC Define COVID-19 Community Levels?

Here’s how the CDC defines each level of COVID-19 risk at a community level.

For low COVID-19 community levels, the county must meet all of the below criteria:

  • Fewer than 200 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days
  • Fewer than 10 total new COVID-19 hospital admissions per 100,000 people over the past seven days
  • Less than 10 percent of staffed hospital beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients on average over the past seven days

For medium COVID-19 community levels, the county must meet all of the below criteria:

  • Fewer than 200 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days
  • Between 10 and 19.9 total new COVID-19 hospital admissions per 100,000 people over the past seven days
  • Between 10 and 14.9 percent of staffed hospital beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients on average over the past seven days
  • If a community has 200 or more COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days, it can still qualify as a medium level if new COVID-19 admissions are fewer than 10 people per 100,000, and less than 10 percent of staffed inpatient hospital beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients, on average.

For high COVID-19 community levels, the county must meet all of the below criteria:

  • Fewer than 200 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days
  • 20 or more total new COVID-19 hospital admissions per 100,000 people over the past seven days
  • 15 percent or more of staffed hospital beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients on average over the past seven days
  • If a community has 200 or more COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days, it will qualify as a high level if new COVID-19 admissions are more than 10 people per 100,000, and more than 10 percent of staffed inpatient hospital beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients, on average.

What Do the New CDC Masking Guidelines Mean For Me?

The CDC also provides tips for what precautions you should take based on your community’s level.

For low COVID-19 community levels:

  • Stay up to date on COVID-19 vaccines and boosters
  • Maintain good ventilation in indoor spaces
  • Follow CDC quarantine and isolation guidelines if you have or have been exposed to COVID-19

For medium COVID-19 community levels:

  • Take all of the above precautions
  • If you’re immunocompromised or at high risk for severe COVID-19, talk to your doctor about wearing a mask and taking other precautions, and have a plan for rapid testing if necessary.

For high COVID-19 community levels:

  • Take all of the above precautions
  • Wear a well-fitting mask indoors, even if you’re vaccinated. This applies to schools and other indoor community settings.
  • If you’re immunocompromised or at high risk for severe COVID-19, wear a mask or respirator that provides greater protection.

The CDC notes that people with COVID-19 symptoms, people who have been exposed to COVID-19, or people who have tested positive for COVID-19 should wear a mask.

Mask-wearing in schools, which has been a flashpoint for months, will be determined based on these same community levels. “We know that also because children are relatively at lower risk from severe illness that schools can be safe places for children,” explained senior CDC official Greta Massetti, PhD, according to ABC News. “And so for that reason, we’re recommending that schools use the same guidance that we are recommending in general community settings, which is that we’re recommending people wear a mask in high levels of COVID-19 [risk].”

Should I Still Wear a Mask?

The CDC’s masking guidelines are just that — guidelines — which means that your community’s rules and your own choices will dictate whether you’ll continue wear a mask. If your community still requires indoor masking in all or some indoor spaces, continue to follow those rules; if it doesn’t, the choice to mask or not will become a matter of your preference, so make sure you take multiple factors into account.

Note, also, that people who feel more safe or comfortable wearing a mask may continue to do so. Even with some masking requirements lifting, “we must grapple with the fact that millions of people in the U.S. are immunocompromised, more susceptible to severe COVID outcomes, or still too young to be eligible for the vaccine,” said Gerald Harmon, MD, president of the American Medical Association in a statement responding to the new CDC guidelines. “In light of those facts, I personally will continue to wear a mask in most indoor public settings, and I urge all Americans to consider doing the same, especially in places like pharmacies, grocery stores, on public transportation — locations all of us, regardless of vaccination status or risk factors, must visit regularly.” Wearing a well-fitted mask remains “an effective way to protect ourselves and our communities,” Dr. Harmon explained, and the choice becomes more of a personal one, rather than a required rule, as the CDC eases its masking guidelines.

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