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CDC to loosen coronavirus mask guidelines as soon as Friday

The new guidelines will seek to minimize strain on the health-care system while allowing more people to go maskless in indoor public spaces

A sign requiring masks as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus is posted on a store front in Philadelphia on Feb. 16. (Matt Rourke/AP)
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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will soon loosen its mask guidelines by weighing metrics such as hospital capacity and coronavirus admissions, rather than simply looking at case counts, so more people can feel comfortable going maskless in indoor public spaces, according to two senior administration officials and two people familiar with the plans.

The change comes weeks after numerous states, including those led by Democratic governors, announced plans to lift mandates as omicron cases drop sharply. But states have long been pressing the agency for better guidelines to inform their decisions to ease restrictions, the officials said.

The CDC could announce the new guidelines as soon as Friday, according to the Associated Press. A CDC spokeswoman declined to say when the CDC would announce its updated guidance.

Under existing CDC guidelines, more than 96 percent of counties are still considered substantial or high transmission for the coronavirus, meaning the agency recommends masking in most indoor settings.

The new CDC guidelines will look not only at case counts, but at severity of disease, by factoring in hospitalizations and hospital capacity, two of the officials said — a change that state health officials have welcomed.

At Janssen’s Market, in Wilmington, Del., customers and employees are adapting to a new phase of the pandemic. (Video: Luis Velarde/The Washington Post)

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky signaled at a White House briefing last week that the agency was planning to update its guidance to include hospital capacity.

“We must consider hospital capacity as an additional important barometer,” she said. “Our hospitals need to be able to take care of people with heart attacks and strokes. Our emergency departments can’t be so overwhelmed that patients with emergent issues have to wait in line.”

On Thursday night, Walensky tweeted that “At @CDCgov, we have been analyzing our #COVID19 data and shifting our focus to preventing the most severe outcomes and minimizing health care strain.”

Public health officials, immunocompromised individuals and others at high risk have expressed concern that mask mandates are being lifted prematurely. But Biden health administration officials say they have been encouraged by data showing that those who wear the higher quality masks known as N95 respirators have a significant degree of protection even if others are not wearing masks, one of the officials said.

Lena H. Sun contributed to this report.