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CDC: Many healthy Americans can take a break from masks

Most Americans live in places where healthy people, including students in schools, can safely take a break from wearing masks under new U.S. guidelines released Friday.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention  outlined the new set of measures for communities where COVID-19 is easing its grip, with less of a focus on positive test results and more on what’s happening at hospitals.

The new system greatly changes the look of the CDC's risk map and puts more than 70% of the U.S. population in counties where the coronavirus is posing a low or medium threat to hospitals. Those are the people who can stop wearing masks, the agency said.

The agency is still advising people, including schoolchildren, to wear masks where the risk of COVID-19 is high. That's the situation in about 37% of U.S. counties, where about 28% of Americans live.

“I honestly think that within a couple of weeks, probably every single county will be in that moderate risk. And a couple may even go to low-risk by then," said Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association.

Humble said he thinks mask guidelines will inform the decisions of businesses, schools and organizations.

The new recommendations do not change the requirement to wear masks on public transportation and indoors in airports, train stations and bus stations. The CDC guidelines for other indoor spaces aren’t binding, meaning cities and institutions even in areas of low risk may set their own rules. And the agency says people with COVID-19 symptoms or who test positive shouldn’t stop wearing masks.

But with  protection from immunity rising — both from vaccination and infection — the overall risk of severe disease is now generally lower, the CDC said.

“Anybody is certainly welcome to wear a mask at any time if they feel safer wearing a mask,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a news briefing. “We want to make sure our hospitals are OK and people are not coming in with severe disease. ... Anyone can go to the CDC website, find out the volume of disease in their community and make that decision.”

Some states, including Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey, are at low to medium risk while others such as West Virginia, Kentucky, Florida and Arizona still have wide areas at high levels of concern.

But some believe the new CDC mandates may be too soon.

Dr. Shad Marvasti with the University of Arizona says if mask mandates are going to be eased, vaccination mandates should be in place.

“You can’t not have masks and also not have vaccine requirements. So I think you at least have to choose to have something in place to protect people," Marvasti said. 

Marvasti added that while case numbers are dropping, the public still needs to be cautious about other possible variants, and remember that children under 5 are not able to get vaccinated.

Maricopa, Yavapai, Coconino, and Santa Cruz counties are all at a medium transmission level, meaning the CDC recommends those with increased risk should consider wearing masks indoors.  The rest of Arizona’s counties are currently at high transmission level.

Dr. Joe Gerald is an associate professor at the University of Arizona’s College of Public Health.

“Certainly, we’ve never had one at the state level, and some counties and some municipalities have enacted them, but those have since gone out of effect, so I don’t think it will make much difference here,” said Gerald.

The guidelines still ask anyone who is feeling sick to get tested, and for those eligible to get vaccinated and receive a booster shot.

KJZZ's Athena Ankrah contributed to this story.

Greg Hahne started as a news intern at KJZZ in 2020 and returned as a field correspondent in 2021. He learned his love for radio by joining Arizona State University's Blaze Radio, where he worked on the production team.