US eases COVID indoor mask guidelines for most of country

Students walk down the hallway at Tussahaw Elementary schooL, Aug 4, 2021, in McDonough, Georgia state, US. (BRYNN ANDERSON / AP)

BERLIN / HARARE  – The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday dramatically eased its COVID-19 guidelines for masks, including in schools, a move that means 72 percent of the population reside in communities where indoor face coverings are no longer recommended.

The new masking guidelines shift from a focus on the rate of COVID-19 transmission to monitoring local hospitalizations, hospital capacity and infection rates.

Under the prior guidelines, 95 percent of US counties were considered to be experiencing high transmission, leaving just 5 percent of US counties meeting the agency's criteria for dropping indoor mask requirements.

Travelers will still need to wear masks on airplanes, trains and buses and at airports and train stations. Those requirements expire on March 18, and the CDC will revisit them in the coming weeks

"We're in a stronger place today as a nation with more tools to protect ourselves and our community from COVID-19," CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said during a media briefing on Friday.

She cited the availability of vaccines and boosters, broader access to testing, the availability of high quality masks and the accessibility to new treatments and improved ventilation.

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"With widespread population immunity, the overall risk of severe disease is now generally lower," Walensky said.

The moves come as the wave of coronavirus infections caused by the easily spread Omicron variant subsides substantially in the United States and states such as New Jersey have announced plans to lift indoor mask mandates for schools and other public places in the coming days.

The new policy is broken down into three categories – low, medium and high risk – based on hospital capacity and cases.

It advises people in medium-risk communities who are at increased risk of complications from the disease, such as those with compromised immune systems, to ask their doctors if they should be wearing a mask.

With the pandemic now in its third year, many Americans have tired of wearing masks. In addition, studies have shown that for vaccinated people, infections from the Omicron variant were less severe and less likely to cause hospitalization and death than previous versions of the coronavirus.

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Travelers will still need to wear masks on airplanes, trains and buses and at airports and train stations. Those requirements expire on March 18, and the CDC will revisit them in the coming weeks, Walensky said.

The new guidelines apply regardless of vaccination status.

Germany

Germany's COVID-19 case numbers may have been underestimated, Minister of Health Karl Lauterbach said Friday, urging the population to remain cautious.

In Germany, BA.2. currently accounts for around 16 to 17 percent of cases, and as much as 25 percent in large cities

"We have very high case numbers, which we may even be underestimating," Lauterbach said. Although the peak of the current wave has passed, he said "we are not safely out of the woods yet."

Daily COVID-19 infections declined to 210,743 on Friday, around 9,300 less than a week ago, according to the Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases.

Germany's seven-day COVID-19 incidence rate also continued to fall, reaching 1,259.5 infections per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the RKI.

However, Lauterbach stressed that the spread of the new subvariant BA.2, which is apparently less severe but more contagious, is problematic. In Germany, BA.2. currently accounts for around 16 to 17 percent of cases, and as much as 25 percent in large cities.

Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe has vaccinated over 40 percent of its eligible population against COVID-19, achieving herd immunity in some of its towns and cities, with vaccines mainly from China.

This is Zimbabwe's milestone in the fight against the pandemic, said Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa when opening the 3rd Session of the Zimbabwe-Botswana Bi-National Commission in the resort town of Victoria Falls on Friday.

Zimbabwe kick-started its national vaccination program in February last year after receiving a donation of 200,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine from China.

Since then, the country has secured more than 20 million doses of vaccines, mainly from China.