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CDC weighs plans to lift indoor masking recommendations

Agency may focus more on hospital capacity and disease severity when changing pandemic policies

Rochelle P. Walensky director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on Capitol Hill last year.
Rochelle P. Walensky director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on Capitol Hill last year. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may soon update its recommendations for indoor masking as the United States begins to transition to learning to live with COVID-19, Biden administration public health officials told reporters Wednesday.

Several states across the nation have already lifted mask mandates, but President Joe Biden’s public health agency has held firm so far with its recommendation that Americans continue to mask up because of omicron’s rapid transmission rate and the nation’s high COVID-19 case counts.

Still, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said the agency is now looking at other metrics besides case counts to determine future mitigation measures. The agency plans to focus on hospital capacity and disease severity when making its pandemic policy decisions.

“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,” Walensky said.

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci echoed this sentiment and told reporters the COVID-19 outbreak is trending sharply downward.

The new recommendations could come within a matter of weeks. Many states lifting mask mandates offer a phased approach, fully lifting masking requirements within a week or two. Walensky said she expects new federal recommendations to “intersect” with these state changes.

Walensky emphasized that if and when the agency updates its guidance, it will still recommend that Americans wear a face mask after a COVID-19 diagnosis or exposure or if they feel unwell.

“We’re moving towards a time when COVID isn’t a crisis but something we can protect against and treat,” White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients said at the briefing.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is recording an average of 2,200 COVID-19 deaths per day and 9,500 COVID-19 hospitalizations per day. These metrics are both decreases from the previous week, but death rates are still relatively high. A year ago, in February 2021 during the winter COVID-19 wave, the U.S. was averaging roughly 3,100 deaths per week — and back then, most Americans were unvaccinated.

Testing capacity

Demand for COVID-19 tests is expected to decline as COVID-19 case counts continue falling.

The Biden administration is issuing a request for information Wednesday from the testing industry, said Tom Inglesby, senior adviser to the White House COVID-19 response. The request is aimed at reducing market volatility and supply chain disruptions. The administration is also looking for ways to make tests more accessible for those who are visually impaired or have disabilities.

COVID-19 tests are free at community health centers and through the administration’s mail-order program. People with private insurance also can get reimbursed for tests purchased at retail pharmacies.

So far, the administration has shipped 50 million orders of COVID-19 test orders, or 200 million tests, to Americans across the country. Roughly 85 percent of initial orders are out the door, Zients said, and in the next few days, officials expect that all initial orders will be shipped.

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