AILSA CHANG, HOST:
As COVID cases drop, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is relaxing its indoor mask guidance. The new guidance weighs the amount of strain on a community's hospitals. And under that metric, more than 70% of people in the U.S. could now go indoors without masks.
NPR health reporter Pien Huang is here to explain the changes. Hey, Pien.
PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.
CHANG: OK, wait, so what does this new guidance say?
HUANG: Well, the new guidance says that if you live in an area where case counts are pretty low and the hospitals in your area are not super strained, you don't need to wear a mask indoors in public spaces, including at schools. Here's Rochelle Walensky, head of the CDC.
ROCHELLE WALENSKY: We want to give people a break from things like mask-wearing when our levels are low and then have the ability to reach for them again should things get worse in the future.
HUANG: Now, along with this guidance, the CDC debuted a new metric called the COVID-19 Community Level (ph). In places where that level is low, you don't need to wear a mask at all. If it's medium, you might consider it if you have some risk factors. And if it's high, you should just go ahead and wear one.
Currently, a large majority of people in the U.S. live in places that are low or medium according to this new metric. So in much of the U.S., the CDC says people who don't have elevated health risks can go unmasked. That said, the CDC does say that masks are still required on public transportation, and people who have active COVID should be wearing them too.
CHANG: OK. All right, so there's low, there's medium, there's high. I mean, how do you know where your specific community fits into that?
HUANG: Yeah. So this new metric, the COVID-19 Community Level, considers three factors. It considers case counts, it considers hospitalizations and hospital capacity. And it's basically a measurement of whether your local hospitals are in danger of getting overwhelmed.
You know, at this point in the pandemic, the CDC says they're shifting away from counting every case and towards focusing on severe disease and making sure health care systems can function. So you can actually look up your county on the CDC's website and see whether your community level is low, medium or high, and they'll also tell you what precautions are recommended.
CHANG: You know, though, the CDC has changed its guidance on masks before. I'm just wondering, do you think there's anything different about this time?
HUANG: Well, Dr. Ali Khan, a former CDC official now at the University of Nebraska, says we are in a different place in the pandemic.
ALI KHAN: Those who want to protect themselves have every tool available at this point. They have free vaccine. They have free masks. They have free tests. And they have free antivirals, right?
HUANG: And experts say it makes sense to put the guidance now. You know, cases are declining rapidly. And Dr. Georges Benjamin, head of the American Public Health Association, says a lot of the U.S. population now has some immunity to COVID.
GEORGES BENJAMIN: The pandemic is still here. We're not at the endemic phase yet. But I do think we're transitioning, and I think it's a good roadmap.
HUANG: Still, health experts I spoke with said getting rid of mask requirements is one thing and making the personal decision to take off your mask is another. Dr. Abraar Karan, an infectious disease specialist at Stanford, says he's still wearing his.
ABRAAR KARAN: With high community incidence right now, I would not be removing my mask in indoor settings. With that said, in two weeks, three weeks, four weeks, the incidence is plummeting right now, so, you know, we may very well buy ourselves a good spring.
HUANG: He'll be keeping an eye on local testing and case rates, and he wants to see that widespread unmasking around him doesn't lead to a big resurgence in cases.
CHANG: That is NPR's Pien Huang. Thank you, Pien.
HUANG: Thanks for having me.
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