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While some states start to lift mask mandates, the CDC stays firm on its guidance

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In states across the country, mask mandates are now being lifted. But today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reiterated that it is not changing its mask guidance. The CDC still recommends masking indoors in areas of high COVID transmission, which is most of the country right now.

NPR's Maria Godoy is here to explain. Hey, Maria.

MARIA GODOY, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Tell us more about what the CDC said today.

GODOY: You know, there was no mention of masks at all in the briefing until the question-and-answer section, when practically every reporter asked about states that are lifting their mask mandates. To be clear, only nine states still have mandates, and many announced this week they're dropping them. Illinois just announced today it joins California, New Jersey, Oregon, Connecticut and Delaware.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky was asked about this, and she acknowledged that these decisions should be made at the local level. But she said the CDC still recommends people mask up for now. Cases and hospitalizations due to COVID are declining, but she said they need to be lower.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROCHELLE WALENSKY: Our hospitalizations are still high. Our death rates are still high. So as we are encouraged by the current trends, we are not there yet.

SHAPIRO: OK, so political leaders in some places are dropping mask mandates. The CDC is telling people to still wear masks. What do epidemiologists say?

GODOY: You know, it's a bit mixed there, too. The reality is the places that would most benefit from masking, places with low vaccination rates, those states don't have mask mandates.

I spoke to Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo about this. She's an epidemiologist with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. She says it seems strange to be dropping mask mandates when hospitalization and death rates are still high. But in most of the U.S., that has already happened

JENNIFER NUZZO: From a national level, it seems like, you know, in many places that decision has already been done. And it's sort of like life has gone on.

GODOY: Nuzzo says she understands why the CDC is reluctant to change its guidance, but she says it's reasonable to be asking the question, when should public health officials stop telling people they have to wear masks and instead let them make that decision on their own?

SHAPIRO: Has the CDC given any indication of whether or when it will change its guidance on masks?

GODOY: Walensky says they're watching the trends, and they're working on guidance. But again, she said the numbers aren't low enough yet.

But I spoke to Ali Mokdad. He's with the University of Washington's Institute of Health Metrics. He says the CDC needs to look at another factor, how many people have already been infected?

ALI MOKDAD: Omicron spread so fast. It infected everybody. Even if all of us would put our mask right now, it's not going to make a big impact. It's too late.

GODOY: He says cases are declining sharply across the U.S., and he argues that now's the time to relax mask mandates. He says they may be needed again in the future if another variant surges, but for now, it's time to move back to a more normal life. But, you know, a normal life is really going to depend on your own individual risk.

SHAPIRO: Are you suggesting that people who have a higher risk level might need to still keep wearing masks?

GODOY: Yeah. You know, if you're older, immunocompromised, if you live with someone who's at higher risk, you're going to want to take more precautions.

Mokdad says while he's vaccinated and boosted and he doesn't feel he needs to wear a mask for his own protection, his mom is vulnerable. She's had open heart surgery. She's 85. And she'll need to keep wearing a mask. And so will he when he's around her.

SHAPIRO: Briefly, will you just end by telling us about what the science says on schools? Do scientists believe kids should be required to wear masks?

GODOY: You know, I asked Jennifer Nuzzo about this. And she said while masks likely do help, there isn't compelling evidence that wearing masks is a game changer in schools.

NUZZO: The question is for how long do we have to make kids do that, given the fact that there are harms that come from it. You know, socialization is reduced, possibly language delays.

GODOY: You know, she argues if states are dropping mandates for adults, it doesn't make sense to keep them for kids.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Maria Godoy. Thank you.

GODOY: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Maria Godoy is a senior science and health editor and correspondent with NPR News. Her reporting can be heard across NPR's news shows and podcasts. She is also one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.