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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has created a straightforward online tool that can help people see whether their area is at high, medium or low community risk for the coronavirus, the deciding factor in the new guidelines the agency released on Friday.
With the huge wave of Omicron-driven cases, hospitalizations and deaths receding across the United States, the new C.D.C. guidance is aimed at helping more communities get back to a semblance of normality, by gauging the need for pandemic restrictions like mask wearing and social distancing by county.
The guidance is not binding, so local mask requirements may still apply, and the federal mask requirement on mass transit and air travel remains in place until at least March 18. However, some states had few restrictions to begin with, and many state and local governments had already eased many restrictions, including on masks. The C.D.C.’s move is likely to prompt more such moves.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the C.D.C.’s director, warned Americans not to let down their guard entirely. “We want to give people a break from things like masking when our levels are low, and then have the ability to reach for them again should things get worse in the future,” she said as she announced the new guidance on Friday. “We need to be prepared and we need to be ready for whatever comes next.”
Under the agency’s previous criteria, close to 95 percent of U.S. counties were considered high risk. Using the new criteria — new Covid-related hospital admissions, the percentage of hospital beds occupied by Covid patients and new coronavirus cases per 100,000 people — less than 30 percent of the population is in high-risk areas.
The C.D.C.’s new tool allows users to identify their state and then choose their county. That yields a color-coded gauge — green for low risk, yellow for medium and orange for high — along with the relevant guidance. All results offer reminders of the importance of vaccinations and boosters, measures which have kept the Omicron wave from inflicting a far more devastating toll in serious illness, hospitalization and death.
In Los Angeles County, Calif., the risk is currently high, and the guidance is to wear a mask in indoor public spaces. Wayne County, Mich., which includes Detroit, is at medium risk, and residents who have special vulnerabilities are urged to ask their doctors if they need masks. New York County, which encompasses Manhattan, is at low risk, and the guidance is that masks are optional. It notes, however, that “people with symptoms, a positive test, or exposure to someone with Covid-19” should wear masks.