Updated Feb 25, 2022 - Health

CDC loosens masking guidance

Illustration of a pattern of masks
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The CDC announced today that it has created new metrics for determining when people should use masks and take other COVID precautions, and now recommends universal masking for less than a third of the U.S. population.

Why it matters: The new metrics are intended to reflect the evolution of the pandemic amid widespread vaccinations and the less-severe Omicron variant.

State of play: The CDC has developed the new benchmarks over the last six weeks or so, a source involved in developing the new system told Axios on Thursday, as Omicron hit the U.S. and then receded.

  • The goal is to move away from using case counts alone to determine when to mask and take other precautions, like distancing or avoiding high-risk settings.
  • Previously, the CDC had recommended universal indoor masking in areas of substantial or high transmission, which included the vast majority of U.S. counties.

The new benchmarks instead tie masking recommendations to a combination of a community's level of cases, hospitalizations and hospital capacity.

  • The CDC now only recommends universal masking in places with high COVID community levels, as determined by the new metrics.
  • The CDC is basing its updated benchmarks on data from previous surges as well as modeling.

Between the lines: As vaccination and booster rates have risen, case counts have become an increasingly less meaningful measure of the severity of the pandemic. Many experts argue that hospitalizations and the amount of severe cases are much better indicators of how serious an outbreak is.

Yes, but: The new guidance may not have much of a practical impact for many Americans.

  • Many cities and states have already lifted their mask mandates as Omicron subsides — and plenty more haven't had a mask mandate for a long time, if ever.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect CDC announced its new mask guidance.

Go deeper