Dr. Rochelle Walensky testifies during a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing at Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., January 11, 2022. (Shawn Thew/Pool via Reuters)

During a Covid-19 response press briefing Wednesday, CDC director Rochelle Walensky said that the agency is maintaining its current guidance for now, but that an upcoming update will reflect changes in “multiple metrics.”

While case counts, hospitalizations, and deaths have declined nationwide, Walensky said the CDC is “cautiously optimistic about the trajectory we are on.” Current CDC guidance recommends universal masking in most indoor settings, including for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.

“As we consider future metrics, which will be updated soon, we recognize the importance of not just cases, which continue to result in substantial or high community transmission in over 97 percent of our counties in the country, but critically, medically severe disease that leads to hospitalizations,” she said.

Walensky suggested that the new CDC guidance will aim to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed by Covid-19 patients, so they can tend to other emergencies such as heart attacks and strokes. “We must consider hospital capacity as an additional important barometer,” she added. “We are assessing the most important factors based on where we are in the pandemic and will soon put guidance in place that is relevant and encourages prevention measures when they are most needed to protect public health and our hospitals.”

Walensky implied that the new guidance may make mask-wearing and other prevention strategies optional, although will still likely encourage them in areas with higher infection rates.

“We want to give people a break from things like mask-wearing when these metrics are better and then have the ability to reach for them again should things worsen. If and when we update our guidance, we will communicate that clearly,” said the CDC director.

The CDC’s delay in modifying its guidance stands in stark contrast with the bipartisan action of many state and local officials in recent weeks, who have relaxed some Covid-19 restrictions such as mask mandates for businesses and K-12 schools due to improving conditions. Last week, the Democratic governor of New Jersey, Phil Murphy, dropped his state’s school mask requirement while Kathy Hochul, New York’s Democratic governor. ended her state’s mask mandate for patronizing businesses, though she elected to keep the K-12 mandate in place.

On Monday, Washington, D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser announced the  discontinuation of the city’s vaccine mandate for indoor businesses, and set an expiration date on its mask mandate.

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