CDC to announce new Covid-19 metrics Friday afternoon

The announcement will include details on metrics for masking and other restrictions
Originally Published: 25 FEB 22 13:20 ET

(CNN) — The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has long pointed to levels of coronavirus transmission within a community as a key metric to decide Covid-19 restrictions — but that is expected to change soon.

New CDC metrics will divide counties by low, medium and high categories, and based on those levels, the agency will advise people about what precautions they should take, a senior CDC official told CNN.

The information will be released Friday afternoon, the official said.

People living in counties at the “low” level will be advised that they do not need to wear a mask indoors. People living in counties at the “medium” level will be advised that they should talk to their doctor about masking indoors. People living in counties at the “high” level will be advised that they should wear masks indoors.

There will be caveats, the official said, including that anyone who wants to wear a mask should do so.

A CDC scientist previously told CNN the agency will shift the way it measures Covid-19 activity toward “meaningful consequences” of the virus, such as hospitalizations.

The CDC currently bases mask guidance on case number metrics in a given county, resulting in agency guidance that people in about 95% of US counties should wear a mask indoors as of Friday.

Under CDC’s new system, people in far fewer counties will be advised to wear masks indoors.

‘Shifting our focus’

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky signaled Thursday night that the agency was changing the way it looked at Covid-19.

“At [CDC] we have been analyzing our #COVID19 data and shifting our focus to prevent the most severe outcomes and minimizing healthcare strain,” Walensky tweeted, adding that the overall risk of severe Covid-19 is lower with vaccination, boosters, and prior infection, and that there are more tools to fight the virus, such as testing, high quality masks, and more treatments.

“Moving forward, our approach will advise enhanced prevention efforts in communities with a high volume of severe illness and will also focus on protecting our healthcare systems from being overwhelmed,” Walensky wrote in a series of Twitter posts.

In recent weeks, some states seem to have already made this shift in focus from community transmission to hospitalizations. Many states have made plans to lift indoor or school mask mandates based on their own metrics: declining hospitalization rates and having a larger share of fully vaccinated residents than the national average.

The update to CDC guidance comes at a time when daily Covid-19 cases in the United States have fallen to a tenth of what they were at their peak last month, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. The 90% drop — from an average of more than 802,000 cases per day on January 15 to less than 75,000 currently — happened over the course of about six weeks.

Despite that drastic decline in case rates, the CDC’s previous community transmission guidance would still show the majority of counties as having “high” transmission, and urge people there to wear masks indoors.

‘Meaningful consequences of illness’

The CDC is shifting its key metrics behind its guidance from case levels alone for two reasons, a CDC scientist directly involved with the process told CNN this week.

One, many more Americans are vaccinated than when the community transmission map was first developed. Two, Omicron, the dominant coronavirus variant in the United States right now, is much more transmissible and causes much milder illness.

The scientist said the CDC wants to focus more on “meaningful consequences of illness” such as hospitalizations, and noted that this is similar to the way the agency monitors influenza.

“Meaningful consequences of the illnesses give us a better impact of Covid on people and the health care system,” the scientist said.

They added that the changes have been in the works for some time.

“This has been something folks have been engaged with and working on very hard — I mean really hard — over the past few weeks,” the scientist said. “It started before Omicron, and then Omicron pulled everyone into it, and now we’ll be able to finish it.”

™ & © 2022 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.