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On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offered a new strategy for preventing the spread of coronavirus while still helping citizens get back to some version of normal (pre-pandemic) life. The new guidelines suggest that 90 percent of Americans can now stop wearing masks, according to TODAY. Previously, the CDC's recommendations relied primarily on the number of COVID-19 cases in a community to determine the need for mask-wearing. Now, however, the agency's guidelines are based on three measures: new COVID-related hospitalizations, hospital capacity, and new COVID-19 cases.
Instead of providing a breakdown of mask recommendations for citizens across the nation, the CDC's updated guidelines are tailored by county thanks to the "COVID-19 Community Levels" tool. Available on the organization's website, this tool allows people to check the COVID-19 "levels" in their specific location and then follow mask-wearing suggestions based on this information. For example, if a county's community level is "medium," then the CDC reccomends you "talk to your healthcare provider about whether you need to wear a mask and take other precautions" if you're "high risk for severe illness." If your county is "high" then the agency suggests wearing a mask indoors in public, among other precautionary steps.
"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," said Rochelle P. Walensky, M.D., M.P.H., director of the CDC, on Friday, reported The New York Times. "We need to be prepared and we need to be ready for whatever comes next."
CDC is updating #COVID19 community recommendations.
CDC’s new COVID-19 Community Level tool classifies every county in the US into low, medium, or high, with recommended prevention measures for each level.
Check your area’s level and learn more here: https://t.co/UZxX67a6M3.
— CDC (@CDCgov) February 25, 2022
It's important to note that the new recommendations do not change the requirement to wear masks on public transportation and indoors in airports, train stations, and bus stations. That said, the CDC will likely "be revisiting that in the weeks ahead," said Dr. Walensky, according to The Washington Post. Plus, if you're experiencing symptoms, have tested positive for COVID-19, or have been exposed to someone with the virus, you should definitely wear a mask — no matter the recent change in guidelines. And whether in a "low" or "high" area, the agency still urges people to get vaccinated, boosted, and, if they have symptoms, tested. (Related: Wait, Should You Swab Your Throat for COVID-19, Too?)
While Friday's update might feel like an especially exciting development for those who aren't the biggest fans of face coverings, many folks might still feel most comfortable wearing a face mask even if they live in a "low" level location — and, as Dr. Wallensky tweeted on Friday, that's totally and completely okay. "It is important to remember that people may choose to mask at any time. We should all support and encourage efforts that protect those at high risk," she wrote. "We all have a responsibility to protect those among us most at risk from #COVID19 & keep them safe."
After all, over the past two years, masks — especially those that are well-fitting, made of two layers, and cover your nose and mouth — have proven to be one of the strongest forms of protection against the virus. And on that note...
How do masks protect against COVID-19?
Even though they've become a ubiquitous part of everyday life, it's worth a quick refresher about how masks work and why certain ones are more effective than others. Viruses such as COVID-19 spread via airborne particles and droplets, which means infected patients can release those little bits of respiratory fluids that contain SARS CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) into the air by breathing, as well as when they're speaking, singing, exercising, coughing, and sneezing, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (In case you forgot, here's how COVID-19 transmission happens.)
These virus-carrying droplets or aerosol particles range in size from visible to microscopic. And while cloth masks can help stop larger molecules, certain masks are more effective at filtering smaller aerosols or particles, such as the ones found to contain SARS CoV-2.
Which masks are best for protecting against COVID?
In January 2022 (as COVID-19 cases continued to surge due largely in part to the Omicron variant), the CDC began rethinking its guidelines after new data emerged on the effectiveness of different types of masks. For example, a large, real-world study done in villages around Bangladesh published in December 2021 found that surgical masks (the flat, rectangular ones that are typically light blue in color) offer more protection than cloth masks. More specifically, in communities where people wore surgical masks, there were 11 percent fewer cases of COVID than in those where people weren't wearing masks at all. In villages where people wore cloth masks, COVID infections were reduced by only 5 percent. (As a result, the Mayo Clinic changed their mask requirements so all patients and visitors must be wearing a medical mask — i.e. surgical, N95, or KN95 — and some international airlines, for example, started banning cloth masks onboard.)
So, of course, not wearing a mask offers the least amount of protection against COVID; cloth masks come next, offering at least a little protection, especially if they're well-fitting and have at least two layers; surgical/medical masks offer significantly more than that. Even more protective than surgical masks are respirators, which are the gold standard when it comes to fighting off virus-carrying droplets or aerosols. In the U.S., the most commonly available respirators are called N95s and KN95s; in Europe, they're called FFP2s. These are the most well-fitting, keep the tightest seal around your nose and mouth, and are designed to keep out the vast majority of droplets and aerosols, no matter their size. (ICYDK, the "95" in the name means that the respirator has been approved to filter out at least 95 percent of potential illness-causing particles.)
The biggest difference between KN95s and N95s is that N95s are made in the U.S. and KN95s are manufactured in China. The latter are subject to a fit test on actual humans to ensure there's little to no leakage, while N95s are not — though they are required to meet standards set by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), such as filter efficiency. (Read more: Can an N95 Mask Actually Protect You from the Coronavirus?)
Unfortunately, just as there are plenty of fake COVID test kits on the block these days, you'll also find many counterfeit masks or ones subject to price gouging from greedy sellers. In fact, about 60 percent of KN95 respirators in the U.S. are fake and do not meet NIOSH requirements, according to the CDC. (To help avoid buying a counterfeit, the CDC offers resources via a webpage and webinar to help you purchase a legit respirator.) For NIOSH-approved masks and respirators, check out ProjectN95, a national nonprofit organization working to provide low-cost and effective personal protective equipment (PPE) to anyone who needs it. You should also be able to get free N95 masks at a nearby federal community health center or pharmacy.
The information in this story is accurate as of press time. As updates about coronavirus COVID-19 continue to evolve, it's possible that some information and recommendations in this story have changed since initial publication. We encourage you to check in regularly with resources such as the CDC, the WHO, and your local public health department for the most up-to-date data and recommendations.