CDC Updates COVID Mask Guidelines: What It Means In Virginia

VIRGINIA — The Biden administration dramatically loosened its federal COVID-19 mask guidance Friday as infection rates return to pre-omicron variant levels around the country.

The bottom line: About 70 percent of Americans will be able to shed their masks while indoors.

In Virginia, the 7-day moving average of new cases of COVID-19 was 1,975 on Friday, the lowest case average since Dec. 3, when the omicron surge was beginning across the country.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the subvariant of omicron, known as BA.2, now represents 4.7 percent of new cases in Virginia. Models indicate the subvariant may become dominant by April.

But models do not show a BA.2-related surge in Virginia in the near future, researchers at the University of Virginia's Biocomplexity Institute said Friday.

The new CDC framework categorizes counties by “low,” “medium” or “high” risk. The CDC isn’t recommending mask-wearing in the first two categories, except among people who have underlying health conditions that put them at high risk for COVID-19.

In schools, masking is only recommended in counties with a high risk of infection.

The CDC previously recommended that people wear masks in areas with substantial or high transmission — roughly about 95 percent of U.S. counties, according to the latest data. The new guidance comes as the virus becomes endemic and the Biden administration focuses on preventing serious illness and death from COVID-19 rather than all instances of infection.

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky tweeted Thursday that the agency is shifting its focus to concentrate on preventing the spread of COVID-19 to minimize the strain on the health care system.

In a White House briefing last week, she said hospital capacity is an “important barometer.”

“Our hospitals need to be able to take care of people with heart attacks and strokes,” she said. “Our emergency departments can’t be so overwhelmed that patients with emergent issues have to wait in line.”

In her Thursday night tweets, Walensky said community infection rates will determine when and where extra precautions such as mask wearing and testing should be targeted.

“Moving forward, our approach will advise enhanced prevention efforts in communities with a high volume of severe illness and will also focus on protecting our healthcare systems from being overwhelmed,” she tweeted.

The omicron variant of the coronavirus is highly contagious, but generally causes less severe COVID-19 illnesses than other variants, especially among people who are fully vaccinated and boosted, data shows.

Daily U.S. COVID-19 infection rates are down to about 82,000 cases nationwide, according to a database kept by The New York Times, and hospitalizations are down about 44 percent. However, about 2,000 people a day still are dying of the virus, The Times reported.

Omicron infection rates in all jurisdictions in Virginia remain at either high or substantial levels. But on Friday, COVID-19 hospitalizations in Virginia dropped to a 7-day average of 1,161, the lowest level since Dec. 9.

Since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, the lowest 7-day average of COVID-19 hospitalizations in Virginia was 220 on July 11, 2021, according to the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association.

The 7-day moving average of COVID-19 hospitalizations in Virginia set a pandemic record of 3,875 just over a month ago on Jan. 19, according to the association.

The Associated Press contributed reporting.

This article originally appeared on the Falls Church Patch