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COVID-19 Coverage

CDC drops guidance for universal indoor masking

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now says most people in the U.S. can stop wearing masks indoors. That is if they live in a community where COVID isn't causing a strain on the hospital system. We're joined now by NPR health correspondent Maria Godoy. Maria, thanks for being with us.

MARIA GODOY, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: This is quite a change, isn't it? What happened?

GODOY: Well, it is a big change, Scott. What the CDC has done is it's shifted the framework it uses for advising people when to mask. Previously, the CDC masking guidelines relied on case counts, and cases were high pretty much everywhere in the country. But a lot of people now have immunity through vaccination or prior infection, so the risk of severe disease for them is lower. So high case counts don't necessarily mean a lot of people are ending up in the hospital.

Now, this new guidance still factors in case counts, but it puts more emphasis on what's happening at hospitals at the local level, things like COVID admissions and hospital capacity. Basically, it puts the focus on making sure local hospitals aren't being overwhelmed by severe cases of COVID.

Dr. Shereef Elnahal is a former health commissioner for New Jersey. And he says from a public health perspective, this new metric makes sense.

SHEREEF ELNAHAL: I do think it's the right time to focus on what we're really trying to control for, which is severe disease, hospitalization and death.

GODOY: So if you are in a county where there is a lot of COVID cases that are ending up in the hospital, you may still want to mask up. But in another county where hospitals are just fine, CDC says you can ditch the mask if you want to for now.

SIMON: How do people know what the risk level is in their county?

GODOY: If you go to cdc.gov, right there on the main page, you'll see a banner that says find local COVID-19 guidance; check your county. Do that, and you'll find out what the risk level is where you live. Right now, about 70% of the U.S. population lives in areas considered to be low or medium risk. And in these places, the CDC says it's OK to stop masking indoors.

SIMON: And does that apply to schools as well?

GODOY: Yeah. Before now, the CDC recommended universal masking in schools. Now it only advises students mask up when their community risk is high. A number of public health experts I've been speaking to say it makes sense to have the same masking recommendations for adults and for kids since children are at much lower risk for severe disease from COVID. But not everyone agrees. Other experts would like to see vaccination rates be higher for 5- to 11-year-olds before dropping school mask mandates.

SIMON: And, Maria, are there groups of people who should keep their masks on regardless of whatever their risk is at the local level?

GODOY: Yes. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky says if you are at higher risk of getting severely sick from COVID, you might want to keep wearing a mask.

ROCHELLE WALENSKY: Those who are immunocompromised or have underlying health conditions, those who have disabilities, or those who live with people who are at risk - those people might choose to take extra precautions regardless of what level their community is in.

GODOY: And also, if you have symptoms, test positive, or have been exposed to someone with COVID, the CDC says you should still mask up.

SIMON: Now, Maria, to be utterly clear, the advice here isn't to just heave out the masks, is it?

GODOY: Right. For one thing, masks are still required in public transportation. Walensky says the CDC wants to give people a break from mask-wearing when case counts are low and hospitals are not under stress. But we may need to reach for masks again if things get worse in the future. So enjoy the break while you can, or you can always keep masking up if you want to.

SIMON: NPR's Maria Godoy, thanks so much for all your reporting.

GODOY: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Maria Godoy is a senior science and health editor and correspondent with NPR News. Her reporting can be heard across NPR's news shows and podcasts. She is also one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.