CDC issues new guidance on masks, but local health officials warn to be cautious

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday announced a change to the metrics it uses to determine whether to recommend face coverings, shifting from looking at COVID-19 cases by county to a more holistic view of risk from the coronavirus to a community.

The new county metrics include 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 Associated Press reported.

The CDC is also offering a color-coded map with counties designated as orange, yellow or green to help guide local officials and residents, according to wire reports. 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.

Currently, Bartholomew and Jackson counties are listed in the yellow category, though Brown County was in the orange category.

The new recommendations do not change the requirement to wear masks on public transportation and indoors in airports, train stations and bus stations, according to the AP. The CDC guidelines for other indoor spaces 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.

Columbus Regional Health is urging people, is advising caution and urging people to “err on the side of the safety” as “we’re not out of the woods yet.”

“We still support and encourage mask wearing as a safety precaution, regardless of your vaccination status,” said CRH spokeswoman Kelsey DeClue. “…Just erring on the side of safety is always going to be something that we would and are going to continue to recommend.”

“It’s definitely not time to flip the switch at all,” DeClue added.

CRH is still requiring masks at its facilities and has no plans to change that policy at this time, DeClue said.

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, according to wire reports.

Previously, the CDC’s transmission-prevention guidance to communities had 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, according to wire reports. This week, more than 3,000 of the nation’s more than 3,200 counties including Bartholomew and Jackson counties were listed as having substantial or high transmission.

However, 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.

The new federal guidance comes as COVID-19 hospitalizations at CRH continue to trend downward. There were 14 people hospitalized with COVID-19 at CRH on Wednesday, down from a record 70 on Jan. 17 and the lowest since Nov. 14, according to hospital records.

It also comes amid one of the deadliest stretches of the pandemic in Bartholomew County.

A total of 15 Bartholomew County residents have died from the virus so far this month, tied for the fifth highest death toll so far during the pandemic and raising the overall death toll to 237 since spring 2020.

CRH officials, for their part, are continuing to urge people to continue to take precautions.

“We aren’t out of the woods yet,” DeClue said. “We are seeing great improvements. Obviously, we’re really encouraged by that. But again, our county’s vaccination rates, and especially our booster rates are …not in a stellar situation right now. So we really don’t want to get lackadaisical, for lack of a better word, and to ease up too much because we know this (virus) is going to continue to circulate.”

“It’s not gone,” DeClue added. “It’s not going away yet. We don’t know how this is going to continue to evolve.”