Most healthy Americans — and Utahns — can take a break from masks, CDC says

In Utah, only Tooele and San Juan counties are still considered high-risk areas under the CDC’s new metrics.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Millcreek Community Library at 2266 E. Evergreen Ave. offered patrons N95 masks in January, when the Salt Lake County Health Department required masks in county branch libraries.

Most Americans — and Utahns — live in places where healthy people, including students in schools, can safely take a break from wearing masks under new U.S. guidelines released Friday.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outlined the new set of measures for communities where COVID-19 is easing its grip, with less of a focus on positive test results and more on what’s happening at hospitals.

The new system greatly changes the look of the CDC’s risk map and puts more than 70% of the U.S. population in counties where the coronavirus is posing a low or medium threat to hospitals. Those are the people who can stop wearing masks, the agency said.

Carbon, Emery, Juab, Millard, Sevier, Utah and Wayne counties are considered Utah’s low-risk areas.

Salt Lake County is considered a medium-risk area, along with Beaver, Box Elder, Cache, Daggett, Davis, Duchesne, Garfield, Grand, Iron, Kane, Morgan, Rich, Sanpete, Summit, Uintah, Wasatch, Washington, and Weber counties. In such areas, people at high risk for severe disease should exercise caution, the CDC advised.

The agency is still advising that people, including schoolchildren, wear masks where the risk of COVID-19 is high. That’s the situation in about 37% of U.S. counties, where about 28% of Americans reside. In Utah, that includes Tooele and San Juan counties.

The CDC says officials in high-risk counties should mandate masks — but it’s only a suggestion. All decisions on mask mandates are being left up to local officials.

Utah reported 425 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, the eighth day in a row that the reported case count has been below 850. The number of Utahns hospitalized with COVID-19 had fallen by 23, to 395. However, there were 101 people with COVID-19 hospitalized in Utah intensive care units, nine more than on Thursday.

The new recommendations do not change the requirement to wear masks on public transportation and indoors in airports, train stations and bus stations, which means masks must still be worn on UTA buses and trains and at Salt Lake City International Airport.

In Utah, the new guidance is not likely to lead to significant change, said Tom Hudachko, director of communications for the Utah Department of Health.

“We don’t have any mandates in place,” he noted “I think maybe last week a lot of places would have used it to lift mandates. There’s obviously none of that here, and there’s not much of it anywhere in the country.”

Nicholas Rupp, spokesman for the Salt Lake County Health Department, agreed.

I think it’s fair to say that it’s not going to have a big impact locally with requirements,” Rupp said. “But it may change some people’s behavior. Those who follow recommendations very closely — there may be some changes there.”

Dr. Angela Dunn, executive director of the department, is expected to release new guidelines for Salt Lake County residents in the coming days — most likely on Monday, Rupp said.

While the impact of the CDC’s changes may not be substantial, the new guidance may motivate businesses who have been on the fence about bringing employees back to the office, said Dee Brewer, executive director of the Downtown Alliance of the Salt Lake Chamber.

The percentage of employees working in downtown Salt Lake City, compared to 2019, was flat at 38% for most of 2021, Brewer said, and started climbing in September. The omicron surge in December and January moved office attendance to 35%, but it’s climbing higher now than it has since 2020, according to Chamber data.

As of Feb. 15, 48% of employees who worked in downtown Salt Lake City offices in 2019 have returned to work face-to-face, according to Chamber data.

Downtown restaurants, bars and performances have attracted visitors at near pre-pandemic levels, Brewer said. The number of visits to downtown businesses is at 86% of its 2019 level, according to Chamber data.

”It’s interesting that people are more comfortable coming [downtown] for all those other reasons, right?” Brewer said. “... Which tells me that it’s not just about the virus or about the protections from the virus.”

The CDC’s updated guidance will “signal the return to normal,” Brewer said, but many businesses have already reconsidered how often employees need to gather face to face. And businesses want to set their own requirements for masking, depending on their environment, he said, such as the differences between working conditions at a construction site and a restaurant.

The CDC guidelines for indoor spaces, other than transportation, aren’t binding, meaning cities and institutions even in areas of low risk may set their own rules. And the agency says people with COVID-19 symptoms or who test positive shouldn’t stop wearing masks.

But with protection from immunity rising — both from vaccination and infection — the overall risk of severe disease is now generally lower, the CDC said.

“Anybody is certainly welcome to wear a mask at any time if they feel safer wearing a mask,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a news briefing. “We want to make sure our hospitals are OK and people are not coming in with severe disease. ... Anyone can go to the CDC website, find out the volume of disease in their community and make that decision.”

Since July, CDC’s transmission-prevention guidance to communities has focused on two measures — the rate of new COVID-19 cases and the percentage of positive test results over the previous week.

Based on those measures, agency officials advised people to wear masks indoors in counties where spread of the virus was deemed substantial or high. This week, more than 3,000 of the nation’s more than 3,200 counties — greater than 95% — were listed as having substantial or high transmission.

That guidance has increasingly been ignored, however, with states, cities, counties and school districts across the U.S. announcing plans to drop mask mandates amid declining COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

With many Americans already taking off their masks, the CDC’s shift won’t make much practical difference for now, said Andrew Noymer, a public health professor at the University of California, Irvine. But it will help when the next wave of infection — a likelihood in the fall or winter — starts threatening hospital capacity again, he said.

“There will be more waves of COVID. And so I think it makes sense to give people a break from masking,” Noymer said. “If we have continual masking orders, they might become a total joke by the time we really need them again.”

The CDC is also offering a color-coded map — with counties designated as orange, yellow or green — to help guide local officials and residents. In green counties, local officials can drop any indoor masking rules. Yellow means people at high risk for severe disease should be cautious. Orange designates places where the CDC suggests masking should be universal.

(Screengrab | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) The CDC announced new masking guidance on Friday, based on new metrics that measure the spread of COVID-19.

How a county comes to be designated green, yellow or orange will depend on its rate of new COVID-19 hospital admissions, the share of staffed hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients and the rate of new cases in the community.

The hospitalization metric may be misleading in Salt Lake County, Rupp noted. “So many of our hospitals take patients from outside our county — from Davis County, from Utah County, from Idaho, from Wyoming,” he said. “So giving hospitalizations a greater weight may not be a great barometer for what’s happening in that jurisdiction.”

Mask requirements already have ended in most of the U.S. in recent weeks. Los Angeles on Friday began allowing people to remove their masks while indoors if they are vaccinated, and indoor mask mandates in Washington state and Oregon will be lifted in March.

In a sign of the political divisions over masks, Florida’s governor on Thursday announced new recommendations called “Buck the CDC” that actually discourage mask wearing.

State health officials are generally pleased with the new guidance and “excited with how this is being rolled out,” said Dr. Marcus Plescia of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.

“This is the way we need to go. I think this is taking us forward with a new direction going on in the pandemic,” Plescia said. “But we’re still focusing on safety. We’re still focusing on preventing death and illness.”

The CDC said the new system will be useful in predicting future surges and urged communities with wastewater surveillance systems to use that data too.

“If or when new variants emerge or the virus surges, we have more ways to protect ourselves and our communities than ever before,” Walensky said.

— Tribune reporters Scott D. Pierce and Connor Sanders contributed to this report. The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.