CDC Relaxes Mask Guidelines for 70 Percent of U.S. Deemed 'Low Risk'

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Friday it would change its recommendations to remove or ease mask mandates in communities it deems at lower risk of COVID-19 spread.

Under the new guidelines, more than half of counties in the United States will be reclassified as low or medium risk. About 70 percent of the U.S. population lives in these counties, CDC officials told reporters. The guidelines continue a trend of lessening mask mandates that many states and cities have already began themselves.

"We're in a stronger place today as a nation with more tools to protect ourselves and our community from COVID-19," Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, director of the CDC, said during the announcement.

The guidelines will remove indoor mask requirements in the counties deemed to be at lower and medium risk levels, including in schools. The CDC's website will soon be updated to show people which counties fall into which risk category – low, medium or high. These risk level statistics will be updated weekly.

At the low risk level, there is "limited impact on the health care system and low amounts of severe disease in the community," said Dr. Greta Massetti, a manager for the COVID-19 Response Incident Management Team. At the medium level, more people are experiencing severe disease and the CDC recommends people at higher risk of severe illness from the virus consult their doctors and decide whether wearing a mask is best for them. The CDC only recommends the high-risk level counties wear masks indoors.

COVID-19 cases in the U.S. have been declining since the peaks driven by the Omicron variant seen last month. Data from Reuters show cases are currently at only 9 percent of the January 14 peak and are continuing to fall.

Many have attributed the fall in cases to how widespread the vaccine has become. According to the CDC, more than 215 million Americans — which is more than 64 percent of the U.S. population — have been vaccinated against the virus. Of that number, more than 93 million have also received a booster dose.

Most U.S. states have already taken it upon themselves to lessen virus-related mandates. Newsweek previously reported every state except for Hawaii has either already ended mask mandates for indoor businesses or announced an end date for them.

However, some still remain cautious as the number of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. stays at moderate levels. At the beginning of the month, the death toll surpassed 900,000, though this was partly due to a lag between people being infected with the virus during the Omicron surge and succumbing from it. An expert predicted the country could hit one million deaths in the coming months.

A recent YouGov/Economist poll showed a third of Americans continue to wear masks outside the house.

"We should all keep in mind that some people may choose to wear a mask at any time based on personal preference," Massetti said. "And importantly, people who wear high-quality masks are well protected even if others around you are not masking."

Update 02/25/22 3:50 p.m. ET: This story was updated to add more information.

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The CDC announced it would recommend significant reductions in mask mandates. Above, various COVID-19 masks. Stock Image/Getty Images