CDC Eases Mask Guidelines for Most Americans

Some recommendations remain in place but most people can finally go mask-free indoors.

woman taking off mask in public

Medically reviewed in February 2022

Updated on February 25, 2022

Most Americans can safely leave their masks at home when they go out in public, according to new guidance from U.S. health officials. Amid a steep drop in Omicron infections, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) relaxed its guidelines on when and how to wear masks indoors in public places.

Under the new guidance, those living in areas considered to be low or medium risk can go mask-free indoors. Right now, this includes about 70 percent of the U.S. population. Health officials note that people should continue to wear masks in areas where disease activity remains high. You can check disease activity in your area by visiting the CDC's COVID-19 County Check.

Falling COVID case counts aren’t the only measure health officials considered when making this change. They’re also looking at hospitalizations—which have improved significantly in recent weeks—and beds taken up by people with COVID. As the pandemic ends and the coronavirus becomes endemic, the focus is shifting to the prevention of severe disease and how to ease the strain on the U.S. healthcare system.

“Moving forward, our approach will advise enhanced prevention efforts in communities with a high volume of severe illness and will also focus on protecting our healthcare systems from being overwhelmed,” explained CDC director Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, in a February 24 tweet.

The new mask rules explained
Local health officials are now considering three county-level measures when determining mask guidance. These include:

  • New weekly COVID cases per 100,000 people
  • New weekly COVID hospitalizations
  • The percentage of hospital beds taken up by people with COVID

Regardless of local case rates, however, the CDC advises people to wear masks if they have COVID symptoms, test positive for COVID or have been exposed to the virus.

Omicron and the guideline shift
The change in recommendations comes amid a sharp decline in Omicron cases nationwide. After making its way around much of the globe, the highly contagious COVID variant began its rampant stateside spread towards the end of 2021. More than 800,000 daily cases were reported to the CDC during Omicron’s January 2022 peak, though widespread home testing likely means the real case count was considerably higher.

COVID deaths remain high, averaging well over 1,500 daily. But reported infections have plummeted to fewer than 100,000 each day.

With Omicron seemingly subsiding, federal officials are refocusing COVID efforts, from preventing disease spread to preventing severe illness and death. The changes in masking guidelines are part of that process.

“Overall risk of severe disease due to COVID19 is generally lower with widespread population immunity through vaccination, boosters & prior infection,” Dr. Walensky noted on Twitter. She wrote that testing, high-quality masks, additional treatments, and improved ventilation have also been effective tools for battling the coronavirus.

What has not changed—yet
Though federal guidelines have shifted, the status of the pandemic differs from state to state and can change quickly. It remains important to follow state, local, and school recommendations until local officials issue new advice.

Mask guidelines remain in place for public transportation and air travel. If you’re traveling abroad, make sure to review your destination’s masking policies and other COVID rules beforehand. The CDC strongly recommends that you be fully vaccinated before any international travel.

Even if you live in an area with low or medium community levels of COVID, you may choose to continue wearing a mask. For example, if you have a sick family member at home, or you simply feel safer wearing a mask, it’s okay to continue to do so. Similarly, it’s important to respect others’ tolerance for COVID risk as all Americans transition out of the acute phase of the pandemic.

Whether you wear a mask or toss it, remember to be considerate of others’ masking decisions. Many people are uncomfortable without a face covering just yet. Many others may not have a choice, due to a health problem or family situation. When in doubt, keep comments to yourself. Just as you know what’s best for you, your neighbors must determine what’s best for them.

Article sources open article sources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “COVID Data Tracker: COVID-19 Integrated Country View.” Accessed February 25, 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “COVID Data Tracker: Trends in Number of COVID-19 Cases and Deaths in the US Reported to CDC, by State/Territory.” Accessed February 25, 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “COVID-19: Your Guide to Masks.” Accessed February 25, 2022.

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