CDC Drops Mask Recommendations for Areas With Low COVID-19 Hospitalizations

community risk level screenshot

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Key Takeaways

  • The CDC removed its mask recommendations for people in low-or-medium risk U.S. counties based on COVID-19 hospitalizations in the area area.
  • Masks are still recommended in schools and indoor settings in high-risk counties, which account for about 40% of the country.
  • The CDC has shifted its focus from new cases to hospitalizations to determine when masks are recommended.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Friday said people living in areas where COVID-19 hospitalizations are low can go indoors without masks.

The new recommendations designate three levels of community risk—low, medium, and high—based on hospitalization rates, numbers of hospital beds occupied, and new cases. This data will be updated on a weekly basis, according to the CDC. Vaccination rates are not considered in risk level designations.

Vaccinations and testing if symptomatic are recommended regardless of community risks.

As of February 25, nearly a quarter of U.S. counties were designated as low risk, while 39.6% were designated as medium risk and 37.3% were designated as high risk, Greta Massetti, PhD, MPH, chief of CDC’s Field Epidemiology and Prevention Branch, said at a press briefing on Friday.

What This Means For You

CDC masking recommendations now vary based on community risk level. People living in areas with low-or-medium risk don’t have to wear a mask indoors, but those who live in high-risk counties should continue masking. You can visit the CDC webpage to find out your county’s risk level.

Masking Advice Based on Risk

The CDC designated varied mask guidance for different levels of risk:

  • Low-risk communities: Masks are not recommended in schools or indoor settings.
  • Medium-risk communities: Masks are not recommended in schools or indoor settings. People who are immunocompromised should talk to their doctor about whether they should wear a mask.
  • High-risk communities: People should also wear masks in indoor public settings and in schools.

The agency maintained that everyone should get vaccinated, and tested if they’re symptomatic or have been exposed to the virus. Officials also emphasized that across all risk levels, people who want to wear a mask are encouraged to do so.

Some Health Experts Disagree With Guidance

Prior to the announcement, some health experts took to social media to express concern with lifting mask recommendations. Oni Blackstock, MD, MHS, founder and executive director of Health Justice, tweeted that she was concerned that loose guidance would put an unfair burden on the most vulnerable.

“Very concerned that this new guidance will essentially recommend ‘one-way masking’ w/ the burden to protect themselves falling on the most vulnerable - ppl who are immunocompromised, w/ underlying conditions, children < 5 yo, etc.,” Blackstock said in her tweet. “We need equity-centered, data-driven guidance.”

Julia Raifman, ScD, SM, an assistant professor in health law, policy, and management at Boston University who is tracking COVID-19 policies, also tweeted about the announcement. Raifman wrote in favor of mask mandates, saying that stricter enforcement helped ensure mask wearing and reduce surges.

Others, like Mia Ives-Rublee, MSW, director of the Disability Justice Initiative at The Center for American Progress, called the agency out for inconsistency in pandemic safety advice.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

By Claire Wolters
Claire Wolters is a staff reporter covering health news for Verywell. She is most passionate about stories that cover real issues and spark change.