In a much-awaited change to federal masking recommendations, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention unveiled new guidance Friday, explaining that it is safe for more than 70% of Americans to unmask indoors.
The shift in guidance leans less heavily on COVID-19 cases as a key metric, instead giving more weight to hospitalizations and local hospital capacity.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC director, said at a briefing on Friday that the change reflects that the overall risk of severe disease from COVID is lower because of widespread immunity provided by vaccines or prior infection, improvements in testing, and accessibility to new treatments.
"We're in a stronger place today as a nation with more tools to protect ourselves," Walensky said.
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While the new recommendation means most people don't need to wear a mask indoors, should you?
Here's where Chicago and Illinois stand and what to do based on where you live:
In the Chicago-Naperville-Elgin metropolitan area, which includes portions of Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, all 15 counties but one are ranked as "low" community levels, and as a result, masks aren't recommended.
Only Kenosha County, Wisconsin, is said to be in the "high" category, meaning people are advised to wear masks in public indoor spaces, including schools, and take additional precautions if at risk for severe illness.
LaSalle County, which technically sits outside the designated metropolitan area, has been ranked as a "medium" community level. In such areas, those at risk for severe illness are encouraged to talk to their health care provider about whether a mask should be worn and if other precautions should be taken, according to the CDC.
While Chicago-area counties aren't experiencing troublesome metrics, the situation is different in other parts of Illinois.
A total of 21 Illinois counties, predominantly in the southern and central portions of the state, are also said to have "high" community levels. Included in such counties are the cities of Carbondale, Marion, Mt. Vernon and Quincy, among numerous others.
Even in areas with "low" community levels, the CDC says it's okay to keep wearing a mask if you choose.
"People who wear a high-quality mask are well-protected, even if others around you are not masking," Greta Massetti, a senior scientist at the agency, said Friday.
The city of Chicago, suburban Cook County and state of Illinois all plan to lift their respective mask mandates on Feb. 28. However, the CDC's recommendation may persuade any remaining state or local government holdouts, who may have been unwilling to ease mitigation measures until the agency gave its stamp of approval.
To learn more information about the situation in your community, you can find the CDC's map of community levels by county here.