Masks are no longer necessary in most counties in the US — including in indoor public places and schools — according to new recommendations released Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Under the latest guidelines, the CDC will be shifting focus to the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations and hospital capacity in counties throughout the US, rather than the number and rate of new infections, officials said.
That shift will mean that more than half of the country, except people with underlying health conditions, can drop face mask mandates that have come to dominate public spaces for nearly two years due to the pandemic, CDC officials said.
People are still welcome to wear a mask in public settings if they feel safer, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said, but the new recommendations are expected to allow most communities to significantly relax their mask requirements.
"If you feel more comfortable wearing a mask, feel free to do so," Walensky said. "The intention of this community guidance is to look at severe disease and people who are coming into the hospital."
Along with the new guidance, CDC officials unveiled an online portal that uses hospitalization rates and capacity to assess whether counties are at low, medium, or high levels of community risk, depicted in green, yellow, and orange, respectively.
Only when the CDC determines a county to be at a high level of community risk will the agency recommend residents resume wearing masks in indoor public settings, officials said. In counties considered to be at a "medium" community risk level, those who are particularly vulnerable to severe illness will be asked to check in with their doctors about whether they should wear a mask indoors.
The website is expected to be updated with new data on a weekly basis.
Currently, 37.3% of the US would be considered at a high level, Dr. Greta Massetti of the COVID-19 Response Incident Management Team said, meaning indoor masking would still be recommended for a minority portion of the US.
The rest of the country, more than 62%, would be considered to be at low and medium levels, she said.
The new guidelines would also apply to school settings, Walensky added.
Masking at schools has become a point of tension in many communities over the past two years, with parents berating school board officials and pushing for mask mandates to be dropped.
The decision to include schools in the requirements, Massetti said, was mainly due to data finding that, even when actively infected with COVID, most children are asymptomatic. That doesn't mean, however, that infected children are unable to spread the virus to their parents or other adults.
"We know that because children are at relatively lower risk, that schools can be safe places," she said.
Part of the reason for Friday's announcement, Walensky said, is that, despite the spike of infections due to the Omicron variant, it did not translate to severe cases in hospitals.
"In that backdrop, we also had more population immunity," she said, due to previous infections and vaccination and booster rates.
Still, she said, the CDC maintains that its officials need to remain flexible in their recommendations and continue to closely monitor the situation, considering the possibility of a new variant that could cause a spike in cases — and possibly more severe infections — in the future.