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CDC director says agency is reviewing mask guidance, but not changing recommendations yet

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U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky on Wednesday said the agency is reviewing its mask guidance with the aim of eventually giving people a "break" once COVID-19 metrics like cases and hospitalizations improve.

The CDC director emphasized that federal masking recommendations are not changing yet. But she did say the agency is shifting its focus to COVID-19 hospitalizations as the key measure for the severity of the pandemic.

"We must consider hospital capacity as an additional important barometer," Walensky said during the weekly White House COVID-19 update Wednesday. "We want to give people a break from things like mask-wearing when these metrics are better, and then have the ability to reach for them again should things worsen," she said.

CDC recommendations currently state that people should wear face coverings indoors in public if they live in an area with high viral transmission. The recommendation is for both those that are vaccinated against COVID-19 and those who are not. According to CDC data, nearly every county in the United States has high viral transmission. Federal law also requires people to wear masks on planes, buses, trains, and other forms of public transportation.

But for months, states like Florida and Texas have gone without mask mandates that would enforce the CDC guidelines. And as the winter surge of the Omicron variant cases has subsided, states with Democratic governors like New York and California have begun to pull back on their mandates, citing falling numbers of cases and hospitalizations.

Since many states are now ignoring the CDC's recommendations, the Biden administration has been pressed to update its guidance to match the reality many Americans are now living in, where people are preparing to live with COVID-19 as endemic disease.

Jeff Zients, White House COVID response coordinator, said the federal government is cooperating with state governors, public health experts, and business leaders to prepare for what comes next.

"We're moving toward a time when Covid isn't a crisis, but it's something we can protect against and treat," Zients said at Wednesday's briefing. "The president and our Covid team are actively planning for the future."

Still, Walensky said that while "things are moving in the right direction," viral transmission is still too high to lax the agency's guidance.

The CDC on Wednesday reported an average of about 136,000 new COVID-19 cases per day over the last week, an 83% decrease from the record high of more than 800,000 new cases per day set on Jan. 15, according to CNBC News.

The CDC said there are about 85,000 patients in U.S. hospitals with COVID, according to a seven-day average of data from the Department of Health and Human Services.

"As we have fewer cases, people will become more comfortable with taking off their mask, but we will certainly want people to have the flexibility to wear one if they so choose," Walensky said.

She noted that everyone should wear a mask for 10 days if they have been diagnosed with COVID-19.

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