CDC Not Changing Mask Guidance Despite Plunging Cases, Hospitalizations

By Zachary Stieber
Zachary Stieber
Zachary Stieber
Reporter
Zachary Stieber covers U.S. and world news. He is based in Maryland.
February 16, 2022 Updated: February 16, 2022

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is resisting changing its guidance on masking and other measures meant to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 despite cases, hospitalizations, and deaths dropping across the United States in recent weeks.

The key factor is the agency’s system for ranking community transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19, which ranks counties as having “substantial” or “high” transmission if there are 50 or more new cases per 100,000 people over a period of 7 days.

The ranking system hasn’t been changed since spring 2020, even as the number of tests performed has soared.

“We recognize the importance of not just cases, which continue to result in substantial or high community transmission and over 97 percent of our counties in the country, but critically, medically severe disease that leads to hospitalizations,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told reporters in a virtual briefing on Feb. 16.

COVID-19 cases have continued to plunge over the past week, dropping by about 40 percent to roughly 70,000 per day. Hospital admissions were also down over the previous week, dropping by about 28 percent to roughly 9,500 per day.

Cases are at the same level they were before the Omicron variant of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus emerged in December 2021, while hospitalizations attributed to COVID-19—a number of which are actually for other reasons—are as low as they were around Christmas 2021.

Crucially, deaths linked to COVID-19 have also gone down. The number of deaths, a lagging indicator, dropped by 9 percent in the past week, reaching about 2,200 per day.

Many Americans are clamoring for a relaxation of restrictions, which has prompted governors in multiple states to recently drop school mask mandates and other pandemic-era rules.

But the CDC, with its guidance followed religiously by some jurisdictions and citizens, isn’t joining them—at least for now. The agency has declined to outline specific metrics that would trigger a change.

“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. 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. “If and when we update our guidance, we will communicate that clearly. And it will be based on the data and the science.”

The CDC told vaccinated people in April 2021 that they could stop wearing masks while outdoors or during small indoor gatherings. But several months later, it said vaccinated people should start wearing masks again while indoors in any public setting in areas with “substantial” or “high” virus transmission.

Some experts say the switch undermined confidence in the vaccines, which have turned out to be less effective than initially thought.

Some experts promote the wearing of masks, even cloth masks, but others say there’s a lack of data supporting the use of masks, particularly cloth ones. There are also concerns that surgical masks are too difficult to wear for long periods of time and that they aren’t effective if worn improperly.

Walensky held the virtual briefing after anonymously sourced reports said the CDC was planning to relax its masking guidance soon.

Even if the CDC does alter its guidance, people should still wear masks if they’re showing symptoms, if they were diagnosed with COVID-19 within 10 days prior, or if they were exposed to someone with COVID-19 who’s quarantining, according to Walensky.

“There are clear times when we want people to continue to wear a mask, and I think as we have fewer and fewer cases, people will become more comfortable with taking off their mask,” she said. “But … we certainly want people to have the flexibility to wear one if they so choose.”

Zachary Stieber
Zachary Stieber covers U.S. and world news. He is based in Maryland.