Most Americans no longer need to wear masks indoors because of COVID-19, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations announced Friday, signaling a shift into the next phase of the pandemic.
The CDC is also recommending that masks be worn in schools only in parts of the country with high transmission. The agency’s new guidelines rely on how much of an impact the pandemic has on the health care system and severity of disease, rather than just the number of COVID-19 cases and amount of virus transmission in a community.
Under previous guidelines, the CDC recommended people in roughly 97 percent of the nation's counties wear a mask indoors, but it now says Americans in just 37.3 percent of counties should wear a face mask in public indoor settings.
The CDC recommends masks only in areas of high transmission.
Under the new guidelines, 29.5 percent of the overall U.S. population is in an area of low community levels of COVID-19, 42.2 percent of the population is in an area with a medium level of community transmission and 28.2 percent of the population is in an area of high community transmission.
The new guidelines align CDC recommendations with what was already happening across the country. Every state except Hawaii has already announced plans to lift indoor mask mandates due to declining case counts, but up until now, the Biden administration’s public health agency lagged behind.
“With widespread population immunity, the overall risk of severe disease is now generally lower. Now, as the virus continues to circulate in our communities, we must focus on metrics beyond just cases in the community,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told reporters on Friday.
The agency will start to evaluate other metrics besides case counts, such as hospital capacity and disease severity, to determine future COVID-19 mitigation measures.
The United States is now in a much better position to fight off COVID-19 than last year, as more people get vaccinated, new treatment options come to market and the severity of the disease lessens. Nearly 75 percent of the adult population in the U.S. is fully vaccinated, and some scientific models estimate that as much as half of the population has natural immunity against the omicron variant.
The CDC still recommends that Americans wear a face mask after a COVID-19 diagnosis or exposure or if they feel unwell. Walensky also emphasized that there are some individuals who are still at high risk of contracting severe disease, and they may be wise to still wear a mask.
Public health experts say this move is part of the administration's plans to wind down its COVID-19 mitigation strategy. The goal is for COVID-19 to become an endemic, seasonal virus that does not require lockdowns or mask mandates, much like the flu.
“Masking is necessary when it's necessary, right? But you don't have it on all the time,” said Carlos del Rio, a professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine, noting cases are on the downswing. He added that cases may rise next fall or winter, and virus mitigation strategies could be reevaluated at that time.
Throughout the pandemic, the nation's public health leaders have focused on not overwhelming hospitals. Now that disease severity is decreasing with omicron and vaccinations, hospital capacity isn’t as much of a concern, Amish Adalja, a Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security doctor and infectious disease specialist, explained.
“Increasingly, it's going to be hard for COVID-19 to crush hospitals the way it once could. Then I think these tools have less impact,” Adalja said of face masks.
Meanwhile, the U.S. is recording an average of roughly 1,600 COVID-19 deaths per day. A year ago, in February 2021, during the winter COVID-19 wave, the U.S. was averaging roughly 3,100 deaths per day.
If the virus picks up steam again, public health officials may recommend Americans pull out their face masks again.
A more contagious subvariant of omicron, BA. 2, is beginning to gain traction. Scientists believe that the new virus strain appears to spread about 30 percent faster than the original strain of omicron.
The number of BA.2 cases in the U.S. is doubling every week. During the week ending Feb. 19, BA.2 made up 3.8 percent of cases across the country, according to the CDC. The week before, it comprised 2 percent of cases. If this trend continues, the virus’ exponential growth could soon make BA.2 the dominant variant.
If or when new varieties emerge, "we have more ways to control the virus and protect ourselves and our communities than ever before,” Walensky said.