One third of Americans should consider masking indoors, says CDC, as a fifth wave of COVID cases looms

May 19, 2022, 10:00 AM UTC

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending that more Americans start to wear masks again, to protect themselves from COVID as new Omicron subvariants continue to spread in the U.S. 

At a Wednesday press briefing, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said that Americans living in counties designated to have high levels of COVID in the community should wear a mask in public indoor settings. Americans living in counties with medium community levels of COVID should “consider taking prevention measures based on their own risk,” including wearing a mask before attending indoor gatherings, says Walensky. 

Walensky also called on local leaders in high-risk areas to “encourage use of prevention strategies like masking in public indoor settings and increasing access to testing and to treatment.”

The CDC determines a county’s level of risk through a combination of total new COVID cases and hospital admissions over the previous week, as well as the seven-day average of hospital beds occupied by COVID patients.

According to Walensky, 32% of Americans now live in areas considered medium- or high-risk, an increase of 8 percentage points from the previous week.

Walensky also noted that the current seven-day average new case rate is 94,000 cases per day, 26% higher than the previous week. The seven-day average of hospital admissions has also increased by 19% over the same period, to 3,000 per day. 

While the U.S. has yet to hit the COVID peaks of the Omicron surge earlier this year, new COVID strains are increasing risk levels in the country.

According to the CDC, most high- and medium-risk areas are in the U.S. Northeast, particularly in the New England region and the states of New York and New Jersey. On Tuesday, the CDC noted that almost 80% of New York’s cases were of the BA.2.12.1 subvariant of Omicron, estimated to be 25% more transmissible than the BA.2 subvariant, which in turn was 30% more contagious that the original Omicron strain. 

On Monday, New York City health officials recommended that residents wear masks indoors, but held off on imposing a mask mandate. “We are not at the point of doing anything other than urging New Yorkers, while you are indoors in large settings, social settings, wear your masks,” said New York Mayor Eric Adams on Monday.

Mask rules––and mask mandates–have been a contentious issue in U.S. COVID policy.

On April 18, a federal judge overturned the CDC’s order requiring masks on flights and public transport. Airline CEOs celebrated the end of the mask mandate, which they said frustrated travelers and stymied a travel recovery. The Biden Administration appealed the judge’s ruling on April 20.

Americans appear to be over the need to wear masks. A poll released yesterday by Monmouth University found that only 32% of Americans support the reimposition of mask mandates and social distancing regulations, down from 52% in January.

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