February 28, 2022

CDC Eases Mask Requirements for Majority of the Country

CDC Eases Mask Requirements for Majority of the Country

In a major move that signals just how far we have come in the COVID-19 pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)  announced drastic changes to its facial mask recommendations for a majority of the country on Friday.

Using data available from hospitals and public health departments, the CDC announced that nearly 70% of the country is considered “low-risk” for COVID-19 transmission which means they can ditch wearing a mask in indoor settings.

What the New Guidelines Mean

The new guidelines use the CDC’s COVID-19 Community Levels (you can check your community’s risk in the link) to determine their recommendation for using a mask indoors. They also use data that assesses how many hospitalizations are in the area along with available hospital beds to determine risk. Under the new guidelines, the hospitalizations and available beds are utilized more than the rate of new infections.

The risk levels go by color:

  • Green = low risk. People in areas with a low risk are advised to wear a mask as they feel comfortable, based on their own personal preference.
  • Yellow = medium risk. People who are immunocompromised or at high risk for getting severely sick are advised to wear a mask indoors.
  • Orange = high risk. The CDC recommends that all people, regardless of vaccination status or personal risk, wear a well-fitting mask indoors. This includes K-12 schools and other community settings. 

The CDC also recommends that certain people and in certain situations, mask-wearing should continue. For instance, anyone with disabilities, anyone traveling, and anyone who is sick or caring for people with COVID-19 should continue to wear masks indoors. Additionally, the CDC continues to recommend masks on public transportation. However, the CDC does not require masks be worn on either private or public school buses, although schools may elect to put mask mandates into place. 

Why the Change?

The change has happened in response to a few different factors: rates of both new COVID cases and hospitalizations have plummeted in the last few weeks and a large majority of Americans are vaccinated, boosted, and yes, previously infected. Additionally, health leaders have agreed that the way we need to treat the pandemic has shifted as well.

Earlier in February, Dr. Fauci explained that COVID will never be eradicated, and even while the “full-blown pandemic phase” of the virus comes to an end, the virus will most likely live on as an endemic. In other words, COVID is here to stay and we need to learn to live with it.

Part of how we learn to live with it involves taking things like mask-wearing to the local level, based on both personal risk (for people who may be immunocompromised, for instance) and community transmission, as well as available hospital resources.

"We want to give people a break from things like mask-wearing," CDC director Rochelle Walensky explained at a news briefing announcing the shift. 

But the agency also explained that basing mask recommendations on community risk and hospital strain allows for changes as needed. In other words, if COVID transmission picks up again—or hospitals become strained under a surge—your area could shift from low-risk to high-risk, meaning masks may be recommended once again.  

“As the virus continues to circulate in our communities, we must focus our metrics beyond just cases in the community and direct our efforts toward protecting people at high risk for severe illness and preventing COVID-19 from overwhelming our hospitals and our health care system," Walensky added. 

Leading nursing organizations like the American Nursing Association (ANA) have yet to respond to the updated mask guidelines. On social media, people have expressed confusion over how a decrease in masking could affect high-risk individuals who may have even less protection if others around them aren’t masking, as well as children who are too young to be vaccinated.

“I appreciate the push to take us back to some modicum of normalcy, I just wish it was not until all people who can be vaccinated are (little kids for example) and national mortality rates fall within one standard deviation of the pre-Covid average,” commented Sarah Kahn on Facebook.

What About Healthcare Professionals?

So if mask mandates are being dropped left and right across the country, does that mean that nurses don’t have to wear masks anymore?

Not exactly. The CDC is clear on this one: the new guidelines do not apply to healthcare workers. The CDC’s website states: “CDC’s new COVID-19 Community Levels recommendations do not apply in healthcare settings, such as hospitals and nursing homes. Instead, healthcare settings should continue to use community transmission rates and continue to follow CDC’s infection prevention and control recommendations for healthcare settings.” 

Considering the fact that hospitals and healthcare settings contain both a potential for high transmission and immunocompromised individuals who could become severely ill if infected, it’s expected that universal masking for healthcare workers is here to stay. Additionally, nurses and healthcare professionals can expect to be required to wear an N95 when caring for patients with active COVID-19 infections.

Masks may be here to stay, but as nurses, we can look at the bright side: it will make dealing with unpleasant smells a whole lot easier, right?

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