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Photo: Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty

The CDC is urging “universal face mask use” for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began, citing recent case spikes as the U.S. has entered a phase of “high-level transmission” before winter officially begins.

Why it matters: Daily COVID-related deaths across the U.S. hit a new record on Wednesday. Face coverings have been shown to increase protection of the wearer and those around them, despite some Americans' reluctance to use them.

The big picture: "With colder weather, more time spent indoors, the ongoing U.S. holiday season, and silent spread of disease" the country now requires requires a multi-pronged approach to reduce the risk of transmission. Universal mask use outside people's homes — whether indoors or in close proximity to others outdoors — is one crucial strategy, according to the CDC.

  • 50% of new infections are transmitted by asymptomatic people, which means face masks are essential to avoid contact.
  • Other strategies for prevention include social distancing, postponing travel and safeguarding at-risk groups.
  • The CDC has also advocated for creating community-level plans to distribute face masks to populations with barriers to access.

What they’re saying: “Consistent and correct use of face masks is a public health strategy critical to reducing respiratory transmission of SARS-CoV-2,” the CDC said in its Friday statement.

Context: Wearing face masks has been a contentious issue in the U.S., with states divided on mask mandates.

  • President Trump and some Republicans in his circle have not always followed CDC guidance to wear masks.

What to watch: President-elect Joe Biden told CNN on Thursday he plans to ask the American public to wear face masks for his first 100 days in office.

Go deeper

Jan 30, 2021 - World

Science helps New Zealand avoid another coronavirus lockdown

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (L) visits a lab at Auckland University in December. Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images

New Zealand has avoided locking down for a second time over COVID-19 community cases because of a swift, science-led response.

Why it matters: The Health Ministry said in an email to Axios Friday there's "no evidence of community transmission" despite three people testing positive after leaving managed hotel isolation. That means Kiwis can continue to visit bars, restaurants and events as much of the world remains on lockdown.

Jan 29, 2021 - Health

Ex-CDC director Tom Frieden on the next COVID-19 vaccines

Americans fortunate enough to receive COVID vaccines now, outside of clinical trials, are getting shots made by either Pfizer or Moderna. But newly released data from Novavax and Johnson & Johnson suggests that more vaccines could be on the way, with J&J's requiring a single dose.

Axios Re:Cap digs into the news and why it matters with Tom Frieden, former head of the CDC, as COVID-19 variants spread globally.

Jan 29, 2021 - Health

WHO says most pregnant women can now receive coronavirus vaccine

A doctor administering Moderna's coronavirus vaccine at a university hospital in Essen, Germany, on Jan. 18. Photo: Lukas Schulze/Getty Images

The World Health Organization has altered its guidance for pregnant women who wish to receive the coronavirus vaccine, saying now that those at high risk of exposure to the COVID-19 or who have comorbidities that increase their risk of severe disease, may be vaccinated.

Why it matters: The WHO drew backlash for its previous guidance that did not recommend pregnant women be inoculated with vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna, even though data indicated that pregnancy increased the risk of developing severe illness from the virus.