(AP / KDKA) – Most Americans live in places where healthy people, including schoolchildren, can safely take a break from wearing masks according to new U.S. guidelines released Friday.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outlined a new set of measures for communities where COVID-19 is weakening its grip, with less focus on positive test results and more on what is happening in hospitals.
The new system significantly changes the appearance of the CDC risk map and places more than 70% of the U.S. population in counties where the coronavirus poses a low or medium threat to hospitals. People in these areas, including the entire Pittsburgh area, may stop wearing masks, the agency said.
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The agency still advises people, including schoolchildren, to wear masks where there is a high risk of COVID-19 infection. This is the situation in about 37% of U.S. counties, where about 28% of Americans live.
The new guidelines do not change the requirement to wear masks on public transport and indoors at airports, train stations and bus stations. CDC instructions for other indoor facilities are not mandatory, which means that cities and agencies, even in low-risk areas, can set their own rules. And the agency says people with COVID-19 symptoms or with a positive test should not stop wearing masks.
But with protection against boosting immunity – both from vaccination and from infection – the overall risk of serious illness is now generally lower, the CDC said.
“Anyone can definitely wear a mask at any time if he feels safe in the mask,” CDC Director Dr. Rachel Valensky said at the briefing. “We want to make sure our hospitals are in order and people are not coming in with serious illnesses … Anyone can go to the CDC website, find out about the number of illnesses in their community and make that decision.”
Since July, the CDC’s Guide to Community Transmission Prevention has focused on two indicators: the frequency of new COVID-19 cases and the percentage of positive test results for the previous week.
Based on these measures, the agency advised people to wear masks indoors in counties where the spread of the virus was considered significant or high. This week, more than 3,000 of the country’s more than 3,200 counties – more than 95% – were included in lists with significant or high transmission rates.
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However, these guidelines were increasingly ignored when U.S. states, cities, counties, and school districts announced plans to relinquish mask mandates amid declining COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.
Due to the fact that many Americans are already taking off their masks, changing the CDC at the moment will not matter much, said Andrew Neumer, a professor of public health at the University of California, Irvine. But it will help if the next wave of infection – likely 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 the mask,” Neumer said. “If we have constant orders for camouflage, they can be a complete joke until we need them again.”
The CDC also offers a color map – with constituencies marked in orange, yellow or green – to help local officials and residents. In green counties, local officials may waive any rules of indoor camouflage. Yellow means that people at high risk of serious illness need to be careful. Orange indicates the places where the CDC suggests that camouflage should be universal.
How the county will be marked in green, yellow, or orange will depend on the number of new hospital admissions with COVID-19, the proportion of staffed hospital beds occupied by patients with COVID-19, and the number of new cases in the community.
In recent weeks, in most parts of the United States, the requirements for masks have expired. On Friday, Los Angeles began allowing people to remove indoor masks when they are vaccinated, and Washington and Oregon will lift mandates for indoor masks in March.
As a sign of political divisions regarding masks, the governor of Florida on Thursday announced new recommendations called “Buck the CDC,” which actually prevent the wearing of masks.
Public health officials are generally satisfied with the new instructions and “delighted with how it is spreading,” said Dr. Marcus Plesia of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.
“This is the path we must take. I think it leads us forward with a new direction of the pandemic,” Plesia said. “But we are still focusing on security. We are still focusing on preventing death and disease.”
The CDC said the new system would be useful for predicting future jumps and urged communities with sewage monitoring systems to use this data as well.
“If or when new options emerge or a virus emerges, we have more ways to protect ourselves and our communities than ever before,” Valensky said.
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