Approximately 70% of Americans live in areas deemed low or medium risk for severe COVID-19 and can go maskless, according to new formula used by CDC.
The guidance is based on a new framework the CDC will use going forward to assess the level of risk of infection in individual communities. Rather than focusing on local case counts to make that determination, the new framework looks at a combination of community-level measures: new hospital admissions, hospital bed utilization for persons with COVID-19 (ie, hospital capacity), and incidence of COVID-19 cases. Based on those metrics, a community’s COVID-19 risk level will be determined as low (green), medium (yellow), or high (orange).
Using the new formula, according to the CDC, approximately 70% of Americans now live in low- or medium-risk communities and are no longer required to wear a mask, although the agency noted that immunocompromised persons or those at high risk for severe disease should consult with their health care provider about additional precautions, such as wearing masks or respirators indoors in public spaces.
“These categories help individuals assess what impacts COVID-19 is having on their community, so that they can decide if they need to take extra precautions, including masking, based on their location, their health status and their risk tolerance,” said CDC epidemiologist Greta Massetti, PhD, MPH, of the agency’s COVID-19 Incident Management Team, at an agency media telebriefing on February 25, 2022.
The CDC defines criteria for each risk level and the corresponding mitigation recommendations as follows: At the low level, there is limited impact on the health care system and low amounts of severe disease in the community. Inthese situations, CDC recommends that people stay up to date with vaccines and pursue testing if they are sick.
At the medium level, more individuals are experiencing severe disease, which further impacts the health care system. At this level, CDC recommends that persons at high risk for severe illness or who are immunocompromised should speak with their health care provider about additional precautions, such as wearing masks or respirators indoors in public.
At the high level, there is a high amount of severe disease in the community and a potential for health care strain, explained Massetti. In high-risk communities, the CDC recommends that everyone wear a mask indoors in public, regardless of vaccination status or individual risk, including in schools.
“Regardless of level, we continue to recommend that people stay up to date on vaccines and get tested if they’re sick,” clarified Massetti.
Mask requirements are still in place for public transportation and indoors in US transportation hubs (eg, airports, bus terminals). However, the CDC is no longer requiring use of face masks on buses or vans operated by public or private school systems, including early care and education/child care programs.
“None of us knows 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. We want to give people a break from things like mask wearing when our levels are low and then have the ability to reach for them again, should things get worse in the future,” said CDC Director Rochelle P. Walensky, MD, MPH, in the briefing.
The CDC has updated its website to reflect this new framework, Walensky said during the briefing. People can now go to the CDC webpage COVID-19 by County or call 1-800-CDC-INFO to find out the level of risk in their own community and what prevention strategies are recommended, including where or when to mask.