The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued long-awaited new guidance Friday on when Americans should consider wearing masks to protect themselves against Covid-19. Under the new guidance, roughly 70% of the U.S. population can now contemplate removing their masks.
The guidance lays out a system that designates individual counties as being at either low, medium, or high risk from Covid-19. Roughly 62.6% of counties — home to 71.7% of Americans — fall into the low- and medium-risk categories.
The new system moves beyond sheer numbers of new cases to look at how well the health care system in each county is holding up. The idea, the CDC said, is to focus on minimizing severe disease and ensuring that hospitals are able to cope with Covid cases while still delivering standard care.
The designations will be based on key metrics at a county level, using data counties provide to the CDC on an ongoing basis. Those include the rate of Covid cases that require hospitalization and the percentage of beds in hospitals that are occupied by people who have Covid. If immunity from vaccination or prior infection holds and fewer people who contract Covid develop severe disease, more counties would move into the low-risk designation. But if a new variant emerges that causes more severe illness, rising hospitalizations would trigger a return to a recommendation to wear masks.
“None of us knows what the future may hold for us and for this virus. And we need to be prepared, and we need to be ready for whatever comes next,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said during a press briefing Friday. “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 should things get worse in the future.”
Most people living in counties where the risk is designated as low or medium are not being urged to wear masks, though people who are at high risk from Covid-19 and who live in counties listed as being at medium risk should talk with their health care providers about whether they should wear a mask.
People who live in counties where the risk is designated as high — currently 28.2% of Americans — should wear masks in indoor public settings, including schools, the guidance states.
The guidance comes as jurisdictions across the country have lifted mask mandates or have announced plans to lift them.
Though the guidance will give people in much of the country a green light to take off their masks in public settings, the CDC noted that they may choose to continue to wear masks.
“If you are more comfortable wearing a mask, feel free to do so,” Walensky said.
The agency also noted that people who have tested positive for Covid, who have Covid-like symptoms, or who have been exposed to someone with Covid should wear a mask, regardless of the risk level in their county.
The new guidance also updates CDC recommendations on mask wearing in schools. Up until now, the agency has recommended that masks be worn in schools; with the new guidelines, the CDC is only recommending mask wearing in schools in counties that are designated high risk.
Under the new system, Covid-prevention recommendations for people living in low- and medium-risk counties are effectively that they should be vaccinated and boosted, and should get tested for Covid if they are sick with Covid-like symptoms. In the medium-risk settings, people who are immunocompromised or who have chronic health conditions should discuss the merits of mask wearing with their doctors.