Thursday, June 01, 2023

CDC eases guidelines for mask wearing

by HELENA OLIVIERO and TY TAGAMI The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
| March 1, 2022 7:00 AM

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (TNS)

ATLANTA — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a new strategy on mask wearing Friday that will allow most people to ditch masks in most indoor settings, including classrooms.

The agency now says masks are needed in public indoor settings, including schools, only in counties where COVID-19 cases are straining the health care system. The transmission rate will be calculated using three metrics: new COVID hospitalizations, current hospitalizations and new COVID infections.

Guidelines will hinge less heavily on new infections, which had rocketed to new highs during the recent outbreak of the omicron variant.

"We want to give people a break from things like mask wearing," said CDC director Rochelle Walensky at a press briefing Friday.

According to the CDC, a "low" or "medium" transmission category based on the new formula means masks are optional. For areas that are classified as "high" transmission, it recommends people wear a mask in public indoor settings, including schools. The recommendations apply to everyone, regardless of whether they are vaccinated or boosted.

Under the previous guidelines, the agency recommended that anyone living in areas with "high" transmission of the coronavirus, as defined by case counts and positivity rates, should wear masks in public indoor spaces like gyms, grocery stores and full-capacity houses of worship.

As part of the change, the CDC is dropping its recommendation for universal school masking and instead will recommend masking only in communities at a high level of risk.

The new federal guidance marks a big turning point in the pandemic, which is approaching its second anniversary in March.

Masks will continue to be required on public transportation including planes, trains, and buses.

"We are in a very different place in 2022 than where we were a year ago this time," said Dr. Cecil Bennett, medical director of a primary care center in Newnan and an adjunct professor at Morehouse School of Medicine's Family Medicine Program, who pointed to the vaccines' continuing effectiveness at preventing severe illness, even against omicron. He recently stopped requiring masks for his staff and patients who are fully vaccinated and boosted. "We have reached a tipping point on COVID and masking."

The new guidance comes as a growing number of states have already started to loosen mask requirements. Coronavirus cases have been rapidly declining across the country, and vaccines and new antiviral treatments have helped doctors better manage the case surges.

While many doctors and public health experts are still concerned about waning vaccine efficacy and new variants, they also acknowledge the time has come when more people in more places can start ditching the masks.

Doctors say people who are immunocompromised, or people who live with someone who is, should still continue to mask in public places. Masks are also important for those who are unvaccinated. They still represent the vast majority of people who are hospitalized and die of COVID-19. But for those who are healthy and fully vaccinated and boosted, the risk of getting severely sick with COVID-19 is small.

Dr. Andrew Reisman, a family doctor in Gainesville and past president of the Medical Association of Georgia, said people are willing to take on some risk to regain the freedom and life they knew back in 2019, "and I think that is a very reasonable chain of thought."

Reisman said he believes the combination of vaccines and a growing level of immunity in the population from having been infected with omicron and other variants will likely provide a high level of protection for at least three months. But, he said he takes the encouraging signs of the pandemic "with a grain of salt." There is still the potential for new, more dangerous variants to emerge that escape immunity. He also said he will continue to wear masks in many instances including inside a crowded gym or grocery store.

The CDC emphasized that people should still wear masks if they wish. And regardless of community conditions, they should mask when experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, during the 10 days following a COVID-19 diagnosis, or following exposure to someone with COVID-19.