face masks

What to Know as CDC, Illinois, Chicago Weigh New Masking Guidelines

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New masking guidance is expected for the U.S., Illinois and Chicago in the weeks ahead. But what exactly will change and when?

While the state is expected to lift a mask mandate that has been in place for months starting on Feb. 28, as long as metrics continue a downward decline, additional changes could be in store for the country and Chicago.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during a White House briefing last week that the government is contemplating a change to its mask guidance in the coming weeks. Noting recent declines in COVID-19 cases, hospital admissions and deaths, she acknowledged “people are so eager” for health officials to ease masking rules and other measures designed to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

“We all share the same goal – to get to a point where COVID-19 is no longer disrupting our daily lives, a time when it won’t be a constant crisis – rather something we can prevent, protect against, and treat," Walensky said.

Though nothing has been finalized yet, NBC News, citing two people familiar with the situation, reported the CDC is considering a new benchmark for whether masks are needed, basing it on the level of severe disease and hospitalizations in a given community.

With the omicron variant waning and many Americans eager to move beyond the virus, government and business leaders have been out ahead of the CDC in ending virus measures in the last week, including ordering workers back to offices, eliminating mask mandates and no longer requiring proof of vaccine to get into restaurants, bars and sports and entertainment arenas.

In Illinois, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said the state expects its mask mandate will be lifted at the end of the month, with the exception of schools, a policy that is now at the center of a legal battle.

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Noting that the state is "seeing the fastest rate of decline in our COVID-19 hospitalization metrics since the pandemic began," Pritzker said if trends continue as expected, "then on Monday, Feb. 28, we will lift the indoor mask requirement for the State of Illinois."

Chicago, however, has taken a different approach.

Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said the city is relying on a set of metrics to determine when restrictions can be lifted, and three out of four key metrics must be met to move forward with easing restrictions.

The metrics include test positivity, hospital beds occupied by COVID patients, ICU beds occupied by COVID patients and daily COVID cases. The seven-day rolling averages for each category need to be at a "lower transmission" level, which is set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

During a Facebook live question-and-answer session Thursday, Arwady said she is "feeling optimistic," and a formal announcement regarding changes to the mask requirement will be made this week. When exactly the update will come, however, remains unclear.

"We are almost down to these lower risk levels," the doctor explained, in part. "...We're really close, and it is really exciting."

The city's data was last updated Friday and had not been updated Monday due to the President's Day holiday, but as of the last release, only one of the four metrics was in the "low transmission" category. The three other metrics remained in "substantial transmission," according to the data.

Currently, Chicago has a mask mandate in place for indoor settings, along with a requirement that patrons in specific indoor establishments show a proof of COVID-19 vaccination in order to gain entry.

Even if the state and city lift their mandates, however, masks will still be required under certain federal guidelines, unless those are changed by the federal authorities.

Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike reminded residents that masks remain necessary in certain places and situations, including for public transportation, inside federal buildings and in parts of long-term care facilities.

The full list of locations includes:

As for schools, the governor is currently planning to take his appeal of a recent ruling by a downstate judge and a subsequent ruling from an appellate court to the Illinois Supreme Court.

Chicago Public Schools has said it will continue requiring masks in classroom despite the recent ruling.

NBC Chicago/Associated Press
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