The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a new strategy on mask-wearing Friday that will allow most people to ditch masks in most indoor settings, including classrooms.
Now the agency says masks are only needed in public indoor settings, including schools, in counties where COVID-19 cases are straining the healthcare system. The transmission rate will be calculated using three metrics: new COVID hospitalizations, current hospitalizations and new COVID infections. Guidelines will hinge less heavily on new infections, which had rocketed to new highs during the recent outbreak of the omicron variant.
“We want to give people a break from things like mask-wearing,” said CDC director Rochelle Walensky at a press briefing Friday.
According to a CDC map presented Friday, all of metro Atlanta and much of the rest of the state is in a “low” or “medium” transmission category based on the new formula, meaning masks are optional. For areas that are classified as “high” transmission, CDC recommends people wear a mask in public indoor settings, including schools. The recommendations apply to everyone, regardless of whether they are vaccinated or boosted.
Under the previous guidelines, the agency recommended that anyone living in areas with “high” or “substantial” transmission of the coronavirus, as defined by case counts and positivity rates, should wear masks in public indoor spaces like gyms, grocery stores and full-capacity houses of worship. Under the old guidelines, 135 of Georgia’s 159 counties were considered areas of high or substantial transmission.
Most Georgia school districts made masks voluntary long ago, but the shift could still affect dozens that still require them. As part of the change, the CDC is dropping its recommendation for universal school masking and instead will recommend masking only in communities at a high level of risk.
As of Feb. 18, 44 of the state’s 180 school districts were requiring masks in at least some of their schools, according to Gov. Brian Kemp’s office. The change in mask guidelines could soon affect a significant portion of the state’s 1.7 million students, since several of those are larger districts in metro Atlanta.
The new federal guidance marks a big turning point in the pandemic, which is approaching its second anniversary in March.
“We are in a very different place in 2022 than where we were a year ago this time,” said Dr. Cecil Bennett, medical director of a primary care center in Newnan and an adjunct professor at Morehouse School of Medicine’s Family Medicine Program, who pointed to the vaccines’ continuing effectiveness at preventing severe illness, even against omicron. He recently stopped requiring masks for his staff and patients who are fully vaccinated and boosted. “We have reached a tipping point on COVID and masking.”
The new guidance comes as a growing number of states have already started to loosen mask requirements. Coronavirus cases have been rapidly declining across the country, and vaccines and new antiviral treatments have helped doctors better manage the case surges. While many doctors and public health experts are still concerned about waning vaccine efficacy and new variants, they also acknowledge the time has come when more people in more places can start ditching the masks.
Masks will continue to be required on public transportation including planes, trains, and buses. But they are no longer required “on buses or vans operated by public or private school systems.”
Doctors say people who are immunocompromised, or people who live with someone who is, should still continue to mask in public places. Masks are also important for those who are unvaccinated. They still represent the vast majority of people who are hospitalized and die of COVID. But for those who are healthy and fully vaccinated and boosted, the risk of getting severely sick with COVID is small.
Dr. Andrew Reisman, a family doctor in Gainesville and past president of the Medical Association of Georgia, said people are willing to take on some risk to regain the freedom and life they knew back in 2019, “and I think that is a very reasonable chain of thought.”
Reisman said he believes the combination of vaccines and a growing level of immunity in the population from having been infected with omicron and other variants will likely provide a high level of protection for at least three months. But, he said he takes the encouraging signs of the pandemic “with a grain of salt.” There is still the potential for new, more dangerous variants to emerge that escape immunity. He also said he will continue to wear masks in many instances including inside a crowded gym or grocery store.
The CDC emphasized that people should still wear masks if they wish. And regardless of community conditions, they should mask when experiencing COVID symptoms, during the ten days following a diagnosis, or following exposure to someone with COVID.
Masks in classrooms
As of late Friday, school districts in Clayton and DeKalb counties maintained a mask mandate in buildings. DeKalb’s Twitter account said the district is reviewing the CDC guidance. “We will provide an update on our COVID-19 protocols next week.”
Districts can create their own policies. Many followed CDC recommendations to require masks when community infection levels were high.
On Friday evening, Gwinnett County Public Schools reacted to the new CDC guidance, announcing that masks will no longer be mandatory given the community’s new designation as “low” for COVID-19.
Atlanta Public Schools also announced late Friday that it will pivot to a mask optional policy on March 1. “The decision is based on the CDC’s new recommendations and a combination of other factors,” the school district said in a statement.
Since the start of the school year in August, 14 metro Atlanta districts have recorded more than 80,000 coronavirus cases among students and staff. Many districts called for masks mandates amid case surges in August and in January, but relaxed those policies as the numbers waned.
National polls show parents almost evenly split over masks. And in the 135 Georgia school districts without mask mandates, the debate ended long ago.
“Honestly, it doesn’t matter to me too much,” said Michael Ross, 30, a father in Cherokee County whose older daughter hasn’t had to wear a mask in school since starting first grade in August. He said he stopped paying attention to the CDC because its guidance kept changing and because both he and his wife no longer felt threatened.
“We still believe that COVID is a real deal. It’s actually killing people, it is,” said Ross. But some are more susceptible than others and must take more precautions, he said.
Georgia’s current COVID-19 numbers
New cases as of Wednesday were 2,236 down 92% from the Jan. 19 peak
Hospitalizations as of Thursday were 1,831, down 67% from January peak.
Inpatient hospital beds in use in Georgia as of Friday: 86%
Where to go to find the numbers: AJC’s Coronavirus in Georgia: COVID-19 Dashboard