CDC relaxes indoor public mask rules

by Jennifer Shutt, New Jersey Monitor

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday unveiled updated guidance for wearing masks indoors in public places, a move that means 70% of Americans likely will be able to ditch their masks. 

The new guidance will divvy counties into low, medium or high transmission categories based on new hospitalizations for COVID-19, the number of hospital beds filled with patients with coronavirus and new cases. 

“This updated approach focuses on directing our prevention efforts towards protecting people at high risk for severe ailments and preventing hospitals and health care systems from being overwhelmed,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said. 

The new metrics are a significant departure from the previous CDC masking guidance, which recommended anyone in an area of high or sustained transmission, about 95% of the country, wear masks inside in public places. 

Based on the new metrics, about 30% of Americans are in low transmission counties, where no indoor public masking is recommended. 

Another 42% of the population is in medium spread counties, where people with underlying health conditions may want to wear masks and talk with their doctors about prevention measures. The remaining 28% of Americans live in high transmission counties and should continue wearing well-fitted masks covering their nose and mouth in public indoor spaces. 

The guidance extends to schools, where the CDC is now only recommending universal masking for students and teachers in the high transmission regions. 

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a statement the new guidance means officials “can continue to keep schools safely open while allowing for educators and parents to get back to focusing on what is most important: our students’ futures.” 

“Moving forward, districts should continue to work with local health experts, parents, and educators to identify what works best for their communities and consider the appropriate mitigation strategies needed to keep students and staff safe,” he said. 

Walensky did, however, stress that anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 or who has been exposed to the virus should wear a mask to avoid infecting others with the virus, which has killed more than 940,000 Americans. 

She added that nothing in the CDC’s new recommendations prevents anyone who wants to wear a mask from wearing one. 

She also sought to remind Americans that they may need to be flexible about putting masks back on if a new variant or surge occurs. 

“None of us know 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,” she said. “We want to give people a break from things like mask wearing when the levels are low, and then have the ability to reach for them again should things get worse in the future.” 

The new guidance doesn’t extend to public transportation systems, where travelers must continue wearing masks. The CDC, Walensky said, will be looking at that guidance ahead of the March 18 expiration date for buses, trains and planes.

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