The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Friday significantly eased its mask recommendations, including for schools, as part of long-awaited updated guidance for dealing with COVID-19.
Under the new guidelines, more than 70 percent of the U.S. population is in an area with “low” or “medium” COVID-19 community level, meaning masks are not recommended for the general public.
In areas with a “high” level — currently about 30 percent of the U.S. population — masks would still be recommended in public indoor settings, and under the “medium” level, people at higher risk are encouraged to talk to their doctor about wearing a mask.
Masking in schools has been an area of particularly heated debate. Under the new guidelines, universal masking in schools is now only recommended in areas with a “high” level.
The new guidelines are based more on preserving hospital capacity than the previous metrics, which focused on sheer case numbers, a reflection of a new phase of dealing with the pandemic as the wave of omicron infections has declined.
The new guidance comes after governors across the country, including Democrats, have already announced the easing of mask mandates, and as restaurants and bars even in liberal cities are packed with people.
“We are in a stronger place as a nation when it comes to protecting our communities and ourselves against severe disease because of our efforts – like vaccination, improvements in testing, high quality masks, and improved ventilation – and because of living with this virus for two years,” the CDC said.
“The overall risk of severe disease is now generally lower. Still, the virus will continue to circulate in our communities, and we must prevent COVID-19 from overwhelming our hospitals and healthcare systems.”
Still, the virus poses a risk particularly for immunocompromised and other vulnerable populations.
“There will still be people who are at higher-risk — or those who live with people who are at risk — for COVID-19 who will want to take extra precautions, regardless of their own community status,” the agency said.
There is still uncertainty ahead as to whether new variants of the virus will potentially evade vaccines to a greater extent.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky warned that measures may need to return “should things get worse in the future.”
The new guidance received praise from many experts.
“The United States has reached an important milestone in ongoing efforts to combat COVID-19,” said Daniel McQuillen, president of the Infectious Diseases Society of America. “As COVID-19 case rates and hospitalization rates in the United States continue to decline, IDSA supports the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s update to its COVID-19 community guidance.”
Former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Scott Gottlieb tweeted the guidance was “well developed” and reflected “rising immunity in [the] population” and “declining overall risk.”
Given the impact on schools, the move also got noteworthy praise from American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten.
“We welcome these long-needed new metrics for a safe off-ramp from universal masking,” she said in a statement. “The CDC’s guidance is informed by science, not politics, and sets us on a path to a new normal in schools and other public places.”
Updated: 5:18 p.m.