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The CDC wants to ‘give people a break’ from wearing masks as the U.S. enters the next phase of the pandemic

February 17, 2022, 9:36 AM UTC

On Wednesday, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said the federal body was considering easing its guidance on mask wearing, as Omicron cases wane in the U.S. and the government starts to plan for “the path ahead.”

“Omicron cases are declining, and we are all cautiously optimistic about the trajectory we are on. Things are moving in the right direction, but we want to remain vigilant to do all we can so that this trajectory continues,” CDC director Rochelle Walensky said.

According to the White House, cases in the U.S. dropped 40% over last week, as measured by a seven-day rolling average, with roughly 147,000 cases recorded per day. The seven-day average for hospital admissions dropped 28% over last week, too, totaling 9,500 a day. COVID-related deaths declined as well, by roughly 9%.

“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. The White House’s chief medical advisor, Dr. Anthony Fauci, previously said that the U.S. is exiting its “full blown” pandemic stage, and entering a period where control is more important than prevention.

On Wednesday, Walensky suggested that when the pandemic is “something we can prevent, protect against, and treat” rather than a “constant crisis,” then the CDC could relax its guidelines on mask wearing—although several states already think that time has come.

As of last week, Massachusetts, Illinois, New York, Rhode Island, California, Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, and Oregon have all already rolled back mandates on wearing masks in public, going against CDC guidance. The current CDC guidance recommends that people wear masks in indoor public places regardless of their vaccination status if they live in an area with high viral transmission. 

Currently, everywhere in the U.S. has high transmission rates, so Walensky said the CDC might base future guidance on regional hospital capacity rather than total case numbers. However, Walensky noted there will be some circumstances in which masking will always be necessary, such as if you’ve tested positive for COVID or have been in close contact with a positive case.

“Our hospitals need to be able to take care of people with heart attacks and strokes. Our emergency departments can’t be so overwhelmed that patients with emergent issues have to wait in line,” Walensky said.

Although the dominant Omicron variant appears to be less severe than previous strains of COVID-19, the virus’s extreme transmissibility has sparked a surge in hospitalizations—especially among the unvaccinated.

The number of children hospitalized with COVID skyrocketed during the Omicron outbreak, owing to a lack of vaccine access for children under 5 years old. Last week, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) revealed it had postponed plans to approve the Pfizer vaccine for children in that age group until April, because of a lack of data.

Even if the vaccine is approved, it could take months to get the youngest Americans vaccinated. The White House said on Wednesday it is now “in the process of planning for the distribution of masks for children.”

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