The profile of a person wearing a surgical mask.
Illustration: PGN

What you need to know

  • According to CDC mask guidelines, only areas at high risk should require everyone to wear a mask.
  • Use the CDC’s online tool to determine your county’s risk level and what prevention measures to take. 
  • New CDC mask guidelines aim to provide a more sustainable approach to living with the virus.

Now that most of the population is vaccinated against COVID-19, public health officials have reevaluated their guidance on prevention measures, such as masking, to allow for more flexibility and “normalcy.” After the Omicron surge in the beginning of the year, the CDC changed its method of determining whether communities should require masks. Here’s what you need to know about the new CDC mask guidelines and the science behind them.

What are the current CDC mask guidelines? 

The CDC’s mask guidance is now based on its online tool that evaluates counties’ COVID-19 risk level. The agency categorizes each county as either low, medium, or high risk, and then provides guidance on masks, rapid testing, ventilation of spaces, vaccines, and treatment accordingly.

Only areas at high risk should require everyone to wear a mask, the CDC says. However, this new mask guidance is not binding and can be overridden by stricter local rules. It’s also important to remember that even if there is no mask requirement, you should still wear one if it makes you feel more comfortable.

How are county risk levels determined?

The agency updates community risk levels weekly based on three metrics: new COVID-19 hospital admissions, the percent of hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients, and new COVID-19 cases. The hospitalization metrics reveal the current strain on the health care system, while the case metric can warn of a potential surge early on, before hospitals become overwhelmed.

Does it matter how many people in my community are vaccinated?

Since there have been many more cases of breakthrough infections during the Omicron wave, vaccination rates aren’t necessarily the most reliable way to detect potential strain on local health care systems. Individuals who are vaccinated and boosted are, however, at significantly lower risk of severe disease and hospitalization from COVID-19.

Why did the CDC mask guidelines change?

The CDC’s new guidance on prevention measures allows for a more sustainable approach to living with the virus, especially since most of the country’s population now has some sort of immunity against the virus, either through vaccination or prior infection. The relaxed guidelines focus more on the need to limit severe disease from COVID-19, which has become the CDC’s main priority. The guidance also allows for the easing of restrictions during a time of low risk, while carefully monitoring the situation for the need to re-establish stricter prevention measures.