Under new federal COVID-19 “community levels” announced Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, universal masking would currently be recommended for less than 40% of the counties throughout the United States, including Tooele and San Juan counties in Utah.
The move away from advising all Americans to mask up indoors comes as cases are declining nationwide and states are lifting restrictions like mask mandates. Last week, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox declared it was time to start treating COVID-19 more like the flu and set a March 31 deadline for ending most state testing and daily reporting.
The Utah Department of Health hasn’t pushed masking against the virus since nearly a year ago when the Utah Legislature ended a statewide mask mandate put in place by former Gov. Gary Herbert, department spokeswoman Charla Haley said.
“It isn’t going to change anything we’re doing,” Haley said of the new CDC position on masks. “We’ve encouraged people to continue wearing masks and do what they think is appropriate for them. But we haven’t had any official recommendations.”
She said the department will review the new levels set by the CDC and decide if Utah will move away from using only case counts and the presence of the virus in wastewater samples to determine transmission rates for the state.
Both hospital capacity and the number of patients admitted with COVID-19 are now being considered along with case counts by the CDC to determine whether counties are at a low, medium or high level of transmission. Those at high level continue to be advised to wear masks in indoor public settings, including schools.
But in a departure from the CDC’s previous recommendations, masks aren’t recommended at all for counties with low disease transmission and limited impact on hospitals. At a medium level, only those at a “potential increased risk” for the virus are advised to talk to their health care providers about the need to wear a mask.
A map released by the CDC on Friday, based on data from Thursday, put Tooele and San Juan counties at the new high level; Utah, Juab, Millard, Sevier, Wayne, Emery and Carbon counties at the new low level: and the rest of the state, including Salt Lake County, at the new medium level.
More than 70% of the U.S. population lives in counties that are at the low or medium level under the new metrics.
The CDC continues to recommend everyone get vaccinated and boosted against the virus, as well as tested if sick.
“This updated approach focuses on directing our prevention measures towards protecting people at high risk for severe illness and preventing hospitals and health care systems from being overwhelmed,” the CDC’s director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, told reporters during a conference call.
She said the new recommendations shouldn’t be seen as stopping anyone from wearing a mask in public.
“Anybody is certainly welcome to wear a mask at any time if they feel safer,” Walensky said, describing the change as offering more flexibility.
“We need to be able to relax our layered prevention measures when things are looking up, when we have fewer cases and fewer hospitalizations. And then we need to be able to dial them up again, should we have a new variant or a new surge,” she said.
Han Kim, a professor of public health at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, said he doesn’t expect the change in masking recommendations will have much impact in Utah.
“That’s the thing, most folks have moved on,” Kim said, except for Westminster and other entities that have chosen to follow CDC guidelines. “I don’t think this is really going to affect Utah except for a few people patting themselves on the back and saying, ‘I told you so.’”