CDC looks to update mask guidance in coming weeks

Julia Nikhinson

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is planning to update a range of guidance in the coming weeks, including on masks, to focus on reducing severe disease and hospitalizations rather than infections, agency director Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday.

“We recognize the importance of not just cases … but critically, medically severe disease that leads to hospitalizations. We must consider hospital capacity as an additional important barometer,” Walensky said during a White House briefing.

“We want to give people a break from things like mask-wearing when these metrics are better, and then have the ability to reach for them again should things worsen,” Walensky said.

Walensky has previously said mask policies should be made at the local level, based on factors such as vaccination rates and hospitalization. 

Current CDC guidance recommends people wear masks indoors in areas of the country where community transmission is high — a measure that is based on case rates. Federal law still requires masks on public transit and airplanes.

According to the CDC metric, 97 percent of counties in the country are experiencing high transmission. But mayors and governors across the country, especially in blue states like California and New York, have begun rolling back mask and vaccine requirements for businesses and schools.

“We are assessing the most important factors based on where we are in the pandemic and will soon put guidance in place that is relevant and encourages prevention measures when they are most needed to protect public health and our hospitals,” Walensky said.

White House medical advisory Anthony Fauci also indicated there was a shift coming to focus on hospitalizations, even as he acknowledged the risk of long COVID-19.

“We don’t take lightly long COVID. So that has to be put into the equation of what our ultimate goals are,” Fauci said. “But clearly the thing that is the most important is keeping people out of the hospitals.”

White House officials did not provide specifics on when the guidance may change, but President Biden’s State of the Union speech is scheduled for March 1, and the moves by states are putting increasing pressure on the Biden administration.

White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients said the administration has been working with  local public health leaders as well as business leaders as they look ahead to the next steps.

“We’ve been clear that as a country we’re making strong progress toward moving to a time when COVID is no longer a crisis,” Zients said. “Everything is driven by science and public health. Obviously, it’s important to understand the perspectives of different constituencies, including for businesses … but public health, science, medicine, is the center of the work here.”

Cases and hospitalizations have dropped sharply in recent weeks, but the numbers are still high. According to CDC, the current seven day daily average of cases is about 147,000 infections a day, hospital admissions are about 9,500 per day, and about 2,200 people are dying every day, on average. 

“Omicron cases are declining and we are all cautiously optimistic about the trajectory we are on. Things are moving in the right direction, but we want to remain vigilant to do all we can so that this trajectory continues,” Walensky said.

Tags Anthony Fauci CDC COVID-19 hospitalizations Jeff Zients Joe Biden mask guidance Rochelle Walensky

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