A surgical mask and an N95 mask hang on display for sale at a pharmacy. Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images.
WASHINGTON — The federal government will likely update its guidance on masking and other COVID-19 mitigation efforts in the coming weeks as the omicron surge continues to wane, U.S. public health officials indicated Wednesday.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said at a White House briefing that the agency will continue looking at community spread, case counts and hospitalizations to determine its guidance.
But she noted hospital capacity, especially the ability to treat emergency cases like heart attacks and strokes, will be part of future guidance about when and where people need to wear masks.
“Our emergency departments can’t be so overwhelmed that patients with emergent issues need to wait in line,” she said.
The CDC currently recommends people wear masks indoors in public if they are in an area of substantial or high transmission, a threshold that includes the vast majority of the United States.
The agency also recommends masking indoors in public areas for anyone older than 2 who isn’t fully vaccinated, as well as people with underlying medical conditions.
The new guidance could bridge the gap that has grown between what Americans hear from their local and state governments, and what the federal government says they should do to address the ongoing pandemic.
During the last few weeks, states that put indoor mask mandates in place in December at the beginning of the omicron surge have announced sunset dates for those mitigation efforts during late February or in March.
Walensky said she anticipates updated CDC guidance “will intersect in terms of timing.”
“Omicron cases are declining, and we are all cautiously optimistic about the trajectory we are on,” Walensky said.
Compared to the first week of February, she said, the seven-day daily average of new cases for the week of Feb. 8 decreased by about 40%, hospital admissions dropped by 28% and deaths decreased by 9%.
Walensky said that even after the CDC updates its guidance on masking, there will be certain times when people still need to wear good quality masks, including the 10-day window after they’ve been diagnosed with COVID-19.
Tom Inglesby, White House COVID-19 senior policy adviser for testing, said that in addition to making masks available for free for adults at pharmacies and community centers, the Biden administration is working on a program to distribute high quality masks for children.
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