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CDC Updates COVID Mask Guidelines: What It Means In NJ

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NEW JERSEY — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Biden administration are expected to lose federal COVID-19 mask guidance Friday as infection rates return to pre-omicron variant levels around the country.

The bottom line of the expected changes: Most Americans will live in areas where federal guidelines say they do not have to wear masks indoors.

In New Jersey, there has not been an indoor mask mandate for months. On March 7, Gov. Phil Murphy will no longer require masks in New Jersey schools, leaving each district to decide for themselves what their policy should be.

The March 7 date applies to daycare centers and preschools— any building that houses children.

The NJ Department of Health said Wednesday this week that school districts should consult with their local town health officials and school nurses in making the decision and the Dept. of Health recommended schools take the following into consideration when deciding on masks: The vaccination rate for students and staff; how much physical distance the school can provide and the school’s ability to do contact tracing and maintain adequate ventilation.

As of last week, only 51 percent of eligible New Jersey residents had received a booster shot.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommends that people wear masks in areas with substantial or high transmission.

New Jersey qualifies as high: As of Friday, this CDC data shows that community transmission rates in New Jersey are still considered “high,” with a 3-4.9 percent positivity rate in the past seven days and 256 COVID-related deaths in the past seven days.

Community transmission rates are high in roughly about 95 percent of US counties, according to the latest data. The expected new guidance comes as the virus becomes endemic and the Biden administration focuses on preventing serious illness and death from COVID-19 rather than all instances of infection.

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky tweeted Thursday that the agency is shifting its focus to concentrate on preventing the spread of COVID-19 to minimize the strain on the health care system.

Walensky didn’t say when the announcement would be made, though The Associated Press and other news outlets have cited unnamed sources saying the new recommendations would likely come Friday.

In a White House briefing last week, Dr. Walensky said hospital capacity is an “important barometer.”

“Our hospitals need to be able to take care of people with heart attacks and strokes,” she said. “Our emergency departments can’t be so overwhelmed that patients with emergent issues have to wait in line.”

In her Thursday night tweets, Walensky said community infection rates will determine when and where extra precautions such as mask wearing and testing should be targeted.

“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,” she tweeted.

The omicron variant of the coronavirus is highly contagious, but generally causes less severe COVID-19 illnesses than other variants, especially among people who are fully vaccinated and boosted, data shows.

Daily US COVID-19 infection rates are down to about 82,000 cases nationwide, according to a database kept by The New York Times, and hospitalizations are down about 44 percent. However, about 2,000 people a day are still dying of the virus, The Times reported.

The Associated Press contributed reporting.

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