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The CDC issues new masking guidance as U.S. COVID cases drop

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

More faces are emerging from behind masks. The CDC's new guideline means most of the U.S. population, about 63% of U.S. counties, are now considered to be at low or medium risk, so the agency has given the green light to take off masks. The CDC also dropped its recommendation for universal masking in schools, leaving it up to local officials to decide. And some districts have already made those moves.

Here to get at all this, we're joined by NPR's Allison Aubrey. Allison, as COVID cases have continue to drop, many states and cities have already dropped masking requirements. So then what's the significance of the CDC's new guidance?

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: The significance is that the guidance really establishes a new way to think about the risk - new metrics, really. Instead of focusing so much on COVID cases, now the focus is on preventing serious disease. So look, hospital admissions and capacity are now key indicators to determine when and where masking is needed. Right now new hospitalizations are way down - I mean, 75% compared to mid-January. Cases continue to fall.

And CDC Director Rochelle Walensky explained the agency's change in thinking when she announced the new recommendations Friday afternoon.

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ROCHELLE WALENSKY: With omicron, we have many, many more cases than we have hospitalizations. And in that backdrop, we also had much more population immunity by vaccination boosting and prior infection. And so many, many of our infections did not result in severe disease, did not result in increased hospital capacity. And it was in that context that we made this pivot.

AUBREY: So masks are coming off in many places. But about 37% of U.S. counties, accounting for about 30% of the population, are still in the high-risk category. So certainly much of the country has turned the corner. But it does depend on where you are.

MARTINEZ: So how can people tell if they're in a low- or high-risk county?

AUBREY: The CDC has a website. You type in your county, state, and your county's risk level will appear with the color. This is based on data from about 6,000 hospitals across the country that are required to report COVID numbers and on data from labs that continue to analyze PCR tests. If your county is in the green or yellow, that's low to medium risk. There's no longer an indoor mask recommendation in these counties. Orange is high, so masking is still recommended for people in these counties. And no matter where you are in the country, if you're at higher risk of disease, if you're immunocompromised, even if there's no mask mandate, the CDC says talk to your health care provider.

Here's Dr. Walensky again.

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WALENSKY: Anybody is certainly welcome to wear a mask at any time if they feel safer wearing a mask. So we are absolutely endorsing - if you feel more comfortable wearing a mask, feel free to do so. And we should encourage people to have that liberty to be able to do so.

AUBREY: The CDC also says people who test positive and are sick, mask up. And Dr. Walensky says though masking is being relaxed now as trends improve, the guidance makes it very clear that masking recommendations could come back if there's another surge.

MARTINEZ: OK. Now, schools - tell us about what could happen in schools.

AUBREY: Well, per the CDC's new guidance, if you live in a county that's now deemed low or medium risk - so if your county's in this yellow or green category - masking is no longer universally recommended in schools. This is a significant change and somewhat controversial.

Here CDC's Greta Massetti explaining the decision.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GRETA MASSETTI: Although children can get infected and can get sick with COVID, they're more likely to have asymptomatic or mild infections. And we know that also because children are relatively at lower risk from severe illness that schools can be safe places for children. And so for that reason, we're recommending that schools use the same guidance that we are recommending in general community settings.

AUBREY: Which now means that universal masking is only recommended in schools and the 37% of U.S. counties that are still in this high-risk category. Though the CDC says local officials can make their own recommendations.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. And some states haven't waited - have not waited at all to lift the mask requirements.

AUBREY: That's right. On Friday, Maryland ended its statewide mandatory school masking policy, putting the decision into the hands of county officials. New York's governor announced over the weekend mask requirements for schools will be removed March 2, this Wednesday. And it's not just masks. New York City is lifting its vaccine mandate for indoor dining and for entertainment beginning March 7. Face coverings will now be optional for President Joe Biden's State of the Union address set for Tuesday. So Congress is lifting its mask requirement on the House floor. And later today, officials in California plan to announce a new school mask policy and a timeline.

California still has counties in the high-risk category. I spoke to California's Health and Human Services Agency Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly, who's a pediatrician by training. His message is that though mask guidance is changing, what's not changing is the evidence that high-quality masks in settings of high transmission are beneficial.

MARK GHALY: We want to be clear that what we're doing is moving from a requirement to a strong recommendation. We think that there are certain populations of students and staff who should feel safe, protected if they decide to continue to wear a high-quality mask - so continuing to support that message. We want to make sure that those opportunities still exist.

AUBREY: What I hear over and over again, A, from public health officials and infectious disease experts is as we enter this new phase of the pandemic, the virus has thrown so many curveballs in the past. We need to be prepared. So, you know, vaccines, medicines and masks remain proven tools to protect us if there is another outbreak or surge.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thanks a lot.

AUBREY: Thank you, A.

(SOUNDBITE OF CANDRIAN'S "CITY BUMPS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.