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CDC expected to update mask guidance as early as next week

The agency is finalizing details even as most states have already lifted indoor mask requirements.
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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to loosen its indoor masking guidelines to states soon, according to several people familiar with the matter. The agency’s update could come as early as next week.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the CDC, is expected to discuss masking guidance Wednesday at a White House Covid-19 Response Team briefing.

Nothing has been finalized yet, but the CDC is considering a new benchmark for whether masks are needed, basing it on the level of severe disease and hospitalizations in a given community, two people familiar with the situation said.

The White House has been eager for the CDC to provide an update on its indoor mask recommendation, although it wants the agency to get it right and it doesn’t want to appear as though it is putting political pressure on the agency, said the two people familiar with the plans, who weren’t authorized to speak publicly.

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The White House declined to comment on the issue, and the CDC didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. 

In recent weeks, new cases of the omicron variant of the coronavirus have been dropping in every state except Maine. Hospitalizations are declining nationwide, as well, according to an NBC News tally. 

New York and a number of other states led by Democratic governors — among the last to keep mask rules in place — have dropped their mask mandates for private businesses over the last few weeks as the omicron-fueled surge has abated. California is ending indoor mask requirements for vaccinated people beginning Wednesday. In addition, several large companies, including Tyson Foods, are moving to ease mask rules for vaccinated employees.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House’s chief medical adviser, said Tuesday on MSNBC that the CDC will continue to modify recommendations as the trajectory of cases goes downward.

States’ making changes to their mask rules is “entirely understandable,” Fauci said. “At the local level, there is a strong feeling of need to get back to normality.”

Senior administration officials have asked Walensky to provide an update on masks before President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address on March 1, one of the people said. 

The agency currently recommends universal indoor masking in areas with substantial or high transmission, which is determined by the number of cases per 100,000 and the test positivity rate. The vast majority of counties in the U.S. fall under those criteria, according to CDC data. 

Walensky has previously said mask policies should be made at the local level, based on factors such as vaccination rates and hospitalization. Most public health experts agree that universal masking, along with vaccinations, is the most effective way to reduce Covid infections. Still, some states and local communities are shifting their strategies as more vaccines and treatments have become available and as the country has begun moving toward a “new normal.”

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