The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to announce later Friday a loosening of federal face-mask requirements that will mean that most Americans will no longer be advised to wear them in indoor spaces.
The CDC will announce a change to the metrics it uses to decide on face coverings, the Associated Press reported, citing two people described as familiar with the plan. The CDC confirmed plans for a media call at 3:00 p.m., but did not specify what the topic would be.
The change will shift from looking at COVID-19 case counts to a more holistic view of risk from the coronavirus to a community. Under current guidelines, masks are recommended for people residing in communities of substantial or high transmission — roughly 95% of U.S. counties, according to the latest data.
The new metrics will still consider caseloads, but also take into account hospitalizations and local hospital capacity, which have been markedly improved during the emergence of the omicron variant.
Omicron has proved highly transmissible and resistant to vaccines, causing many breakthrough infections in vaccinated people and even those who have had a booster shot. But those cases have mostly been mild or asymptomatic, meaning vaccines still offer a high level of protection against severe disease and death.
That leaves the unvaccinated at the highest risk of being hospitalized or of dying from omicron, making it ever more important that they get their shots.
The Biden administration has said it’s preparing to move the nation to a new phase of the pandemic, one where COVID can be managed using vaccines and treatments, and where some semblance of normality is restored.
Some experts say it’s too soon to abandon mitigation measures like face masks, which have proved effective in containing case spread.
Read also: Why we won’t see herd immunity for COVID-19
The CDC’s director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, has said such a change was in the works.
“We must consider hospital capacity as an additional important barometer. Our hospitals need to be able to take care of people with heart attacks and strokes. Our emergency departments can’t be so overwhelmed that patients with emergent issues have to wait in line,” she said during a White House briefing last week.
The U.S. is averaging about 72,754 cases of COVID a day, down 65% from two weeks ago, according to a New York Times tracker, as the surge of cases caused by omicron continues to decline from its January peak.
The U.S. is averaging 57,544 hospitalizations a day, down 44% from two weeks ago. And deaths in the U.S. are finally starting to fall, down 27% to an average of 1,868 a day.
Meanwhile, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and that state’s surgeon general, Joseph Ladapo, on Thursday announced new coronavirus policy recommendations that discourage mask wearing and push physicians to use off-label medications to treat the virus, the AP reported separately.
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The Florida guidance, explicitly billed as “Buck the CDC,” is the Republican governor’s latest break with federal officials over COVID-19 rules, a feud that has boosted his prominence in the GOP as he eyes a 2024 presidential bid.
“People want to live freely in Florida, without corporate masking creating a two-tier society and without overbearing isolation for children,” DeSantis said in a statement. “We are empowering healthcare practitioners to follow science, not Fauci’s status quo,” he said, referring to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and for decades the country’s pre-eminent expert in infectious diseases.
Florida has had 5.8 million confirmed cases of COVID, and 69,553 people have died, the Times tracker shows. Critics have throughout the pandemic decried the state’s collection and dissemination of case, hospitalization and mortality data.
Other COVID-19 news you should know about:
• Italy, an early pandemic hot spot, will end its state of emergency on March 31, Reuters reported. Prime Minister Mario Draghi is promising a gradual return to normal after more than two years of the health crisis. Coronavirus cases and deaths have receded in recent weeks, and the government has come under pressure from businesses and some political parties to roll back the restrictions that have been introduced since early 2020.
• Hong Kong recorded more than 10,000 COVID cases on Friday for the first time, ABC News reported. The new daily case count reached 10,010, health officials said, after topping 6,000 last week and 8,000 earlier this week in a spiraling outbreak. The city has been reporting about 50 deaths a day, many among the unvaccinated elderly. The island has asked for help from mainland China as its healthcare system is overwhelmed.
• Canada has become the first country to approve a plant-based COVID vaccine in the shape of Medicago’s two-shot regimen, the National Post newspaper reported. The vaccine, called covifenz, is authorized for use in people aged 18 to 64. It was developed by the Quebec-based biotech with GlaxoSmithKline
and uses technology that does not involve animal products or live viruses.
• German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach warned Friday that the pandemic is not over as his country is still seeing record cases and death numbers, the AP reported. The Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s disease-control agency, reported 210,743 newly confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 226 deaths in the past 24 hours. Officials say laboratory data suggest there may be a large number of undetected cases. “We need to be careful not to think that the pandemic is over,” Lauterbach told reporters in Berlin.
Here’s what the numbers say
The global tally of confirmed cases of COVID-19 rose above 431.9 million on Friday, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University, while the death toll climbed above 5.93 million.
The U.S. leads the world with 78.8 million cases.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s tracker shows that 215.2 million people living in the U.S. are fully vaccinated, equal to 64.8% of the population. But just 93.6 million are boosted, equal to 43.5% of the vaccinated population.