Trick or treat? CDC’s updated guidance means that fewer people need face masks


On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced revisions to its COVID-19 face mask protocol.

What’s new?

Most people are either vaccinated or possess natural immunity from COVID infections. Therefore, the risk of medically significant disease, hospitalization, and death from COVID-19 is far less for most people. Consequently, the corresponding impact of COVID-19 illness on health and healthcare systems declines significantly too.

Serious COVID-19 illnesses continue to strain some health systems across the country. This map breaks down the data by county. However, with less strain overall on communities and healthcare systems, the CDC has developed a COVID-19 Community Levels tool to help communities decide what prevention steps to take based on the latest data.

From now on, the CDC will recommend mask use based on one of three “community levels.”

  1. Low. Wear a mask based on your personal preference, informed by your level of risk.
  2. Medium. Wear a mask if you are immunocompromised or at high risk for severe illness.
  3. High. Wear a well-fitting mask indoors in public, regardless of vaccination status or individual risk or if you are immunocompromised or at high risk for severe illness.

Regardless of community level, people with symptoms, a positive test, or exposure to someone with COVID-19 should wear masks.

Your company’s mileage, however, may vary.

Let’s say I operate a business in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. The “community-level” there is medium. Therefore, the CDC only recommends masks for the immunocompromised or people at high risk for severe illness — nothing to muffle that syrupy-sweet local accent.

Now, if I expand my business into Philadelphia County, where the “community-level” there is medium too, the CDC’s masking recommendations continue to apply only to those at heightened risk. However, Philadelphia has an indoor mask mandate for businesses and institutions that do not require everyone who enters to be vaccinated. So, unless I require all of my Philadelphia workers to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, they need to wear masks indoors.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports here that the City is reviewing its mandate in light of the new CDC guidance. However, it intends to continue its mask mandate for now.

Other states and localities may pivot based on the new CDC guidance. Just make sure that your business operates consistently with any such local rules.

On the flip side, and I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but do not impose a rule that forbids the use of face masks at work. Many of your employees will continue to wear masks based on personal preference. You should allow them to do so unless it interferes with their ability to perform their jobs safely.

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