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CDC wants to “give people a break” from masks, says new guidance coming


Paper print-out taped to glass door.
Enlarge / Signage on a window of a coffee shop informs customer of their masking policy in San Francisco, California, US, on Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022. The state’s indoor mask requirement, which requires everyone to wear face coverings indoors regardless of vaccination status, expired on Wednesday.

With national cases of COVID-19 dropping precipitously, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will soon release new guidance on how states and local governments can ease out of health restrictions, including indoor mask wearing. According to news reports citing unnamed officials, new guidance could come as early as next week.

The CDC’s guidance will arrive well after several states and local governments charged ahead with plans to pull back pandemic restrictions, particularly indoor masking. The moves have left some questioning whether the CDC is, once again, struggling to keep up with the pandemic’s shifting conditions.

In a press briefing last week, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky stood by the current guidance, noting that “our hospitalizations are still high, our death rates are still high.” While the agency was “encouraged” by current downward trends, “we are not there yet,” Dr. Walensky said of easing guidance.

At the time, 99.1 percent of US counties had high or substantial levels of virus transmission, which necessitates indoor masking, according to the CDC’s current guidance. Though cases continue to fall, transmission levels have changed little since then. Nationally, the average daily new cases is still around 140,000, which is not much lower than the peak average seen during the delta wave. Hospitalizations are still high, with a daily average around 85,000. And daily deaths are still higher than at any point during the delta wave, with the current daily average of around 2,300.

Eager to move on

But in a briefing Wednesday, Walensky acknowledged the reality “that everyone is anxious to move beyond this pandemic” as well as the health restrictions put in place over the last two years.

“As we see the omicron wave continue to wane, we know that you may have questions regarding what prevention strategies are really necessary for this moment, especially as people are so eager to remove them,” she said.

As such, the CDC is working on new metrics for determining when it’s safe to ease restrictions in specific areas. Though Walensky stopped short of explicitly saying what those metrics will be, she emphasized that the agency is focused on local levels of severe disease and hospital capacity rather than cases and transmission levels.

“As we consider future metrics, which will be updated soon, we recognize the importance of not just cases… but critically, medically severe disease that leads to hospitalizations,” she said. “We must consider hospital capacity as an additional important barometer. Our hospitals need to be able to take care of people with heart attacks and strokes. Our emergency departments can’t be so overwhelmed that patients with emergent issues have to wait in line.”

With the new metrics, Walensky said she hopes the updated guidance will be more flexible in terms of adapting to changing conditions. “We want to give people a break from things like mask-wearing, when these metrics are better, and then have the ability to reach for them again should things worsen,” she said.



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