New CDC mask guidance may start shift to 'endemic phase' of COVID; most of US population now in low or medium risk zones: Live COVID updates

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced guideline changes allowing most Americans to unmask indoors, which health experts say may be the first of many steps to shift the U.S. to an “endemic phase” of the pandemic.

The agency is using different metrics than before to determine whether to recommend face coverings, the CDC said in a Friday news briefing.

Under the old guidelines, masks were recommended for people living in communities of substantial or high transmission, which applied to roughly 95% of U.S. counties.

The new guidance will consider hospitalizations, current beds occupied by COVID patients and hospital capacity, in addition to caseloads. The metrics would put more than half of U.S. counties – where more than 70% of Americans live – in areas of low or medium risk, according to the CDC data.

"We are in a stronger place today as a nation with more tools today to protect ourselves and our community from COVID-19 like vaccination, boosters, broader access to testing, availability of high quality masks, accessibility to new treatments, and improved ventilation," CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during Friday's briefing.

Officials say the new guidelines won’t immediately impact federal mask mandates and Americans will still be required to wear face coverings on public transportation until a decision is made closer to March 18, when the mandate is set to expire.

However, the CDC says schools are included in the public settings where masking and testing may not be necessary if the COVID-19 risk is low based on the new metrics.

The CDC advises people who are at higher risk of severe disease from COVID-19 – or those who live with people who are at risk – to take extra precautions, regardless of their own community status.

The new policy comes as the Biden administration moves to shift its focus to preventing serious illness and death from COVID-19, rather than all instances of infection, as part of a strategy adjustment for a new “phase" in the response as the virus becomes endemic.

- Adrianna Rodriguez, USA TODAY

Also in the news:

►Maryland has become the 27th state to report at least 1 million cases, Johns Hopkins University data shows.

►All government-mandated coronavirus restrictions in England were lifted Thursday, including the legal requirement for people who test positive for COVID-19 to isolate at home.

►Canada on Thursday became the first country to authorize use of a plant-based COVID-19 vaccine. A study of 24,000 adults found the vaccine was 71% effective at preventing COVID-19 — although that was before the omicron variant emerged. Side effects were mild, including fever and fatigue.

►Michigan doctors could prescribe ivermectin and similarly unproven or harmful medications to patients dying of COVID-19 and not risk losing their licenses under a bill House lawmakers approved Wednesday.

►New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was rushed out of a school event Thursday after protesters against COVID-19 restrictions formed a crowd and then chased her car.

►More than 80% of the billions of dollars in federal rental assistance aimed at keeping families in their homes during the pandemic went to low-income tenants, the Treasury Department said Thursday.

📈Today's numbers: The U.S. has recorded more than78.7 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and 944,800 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Global totals: More than 431.2 million cases and 5.9 million deaths. More than 215.2 million Americans – 64.8% – are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

📘 What we're reading: Moderna hopes to offer a new COVID-19 vaccine booster in the fall to protect against variants. Read the full story.

Keep refreshing this page for the latest news. Want more? Sign up for USA TODAY's free Coronavirus Watch newsletter to receive updates directly to your inbox and join our Facebook group.

5 million children have lost a parent or caregiver to COVID-19, study says

More than 5.2 million children globally have lost a parent or caregiver to COVID-19, according to a newly published study.

Researchers surveyed mortality data from 20 countries, including the U.S., India, Peru, and others from March 2020 to October 2021.

The results, published in the Lancet Child & Adolescent Health journal, revealed millions of adolescents have lost parents to the coronavirus, especially fathers – about 75 percent of parents or caregivers who died were men.

An initial study from July 2021 estimated 1.5 million children had experienced the death of a parent or caregiver between March 2020 and April 2021, but the new study increased that estimate to more than 2.7 million children.

The figures from the new study don’t account for the latest wave of the omicron variant, which likely would raise the toll even higher.

A study published in October 2021 found children of color are disproportionately orphaned by COVID: 65% of children who lost a parent or caregiver were children of color. Indigenous children had the highest risk, with about 1 in every 168 Native American children losing a caregiver, compared to 1 in every 753 white children.

North Carolina governor vetoes 'Free the Smiles Act'

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, vetoed a bill advanced by state Republicans that would allow students, with their parents' permission, to opt out of masking requirements in schools.

Cooper said Thursday that the decision on mask mandates should remain with school boards, and that people shouldn't "pick and choose" which health laws to follow.

More than half of school districts in the state have already ended indoor masking requirements as cases of COVID-19 fell recently, and Cooper also urged school boards to end broad masking mandates.

Republicans in the state legislature could try to override the veto.

“Actions speak louder than words, and the governor should do more than ‘encourage’ schools to lift their mask mandates,” said Republican House Speaker Tim Moore. “Return this decision back to parents.”

Contributing: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: New CDC mask guidance; 'Free the Smiles Act' vetoed: COVID updates