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These US counties still have ‘high’ Covid-19 levels as their states lift mask mandates, CNN analysis shows

<i>Christopher Furlong/Getty Images</i><br/>Most people in the United States now live in counties where those who are healthy no longer need to wear masks.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Most people in the United States now live in counties where those who are healthy no longer need to wear masks.

By Jacqueline Howard and Virginia Langmaid, CNN

Most people in the United States now live in counties where those who are healthy no longer need to wear masks, but there are still about 472 counties nationwide where mask-wearing is recommended, according to the latest data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Florida’s Hillsborough County is one of them.

In that county on Wednesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis approached a group of students wearing masks who were standing behind a podium at the University of South Florida, where the Republican governor was scheduled to hold a news conference. He told the students, “You do not have to wear those masks. I mean, please take them off.”

But according to the CDC’s latest guidance, people are recommended to still wear masks indoors in counties that have “high” levels of Covid-19, including Hillsborough County.

The CDC said Thursday that “more than 90%” of US residents are now in a location with low or medium Covid-19 community levels. A CNN analysis of the data finds that 7% of the US population is in counties with “high” Covid-19 community levels, down from 28% last week.

DeSantis called the students’ mask-wearing “ridiculous,” but they were following CDC recommendations. Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said DeSantis was “bullying” the students for wearing masks.

“Gov. DeSantis has proven himself to be someone who does not follow good science advice, obviously for political reasons,” Benjamin told CNN on Thursday. “I was horrified at what he did.”

On Twitter, DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw doubled down on the governor’s comments: “I mean, someone had to say it, after 2 years of propaganda that terrified and manipulated young people. Breathe free, feel safe and be happy.”

Across the United States, most of the counties that still have high Covid-19 levels, based on the CDC’s updated metrics, might be affected by various factors, Benjamin said: low Covid-19 vaccination rates, limited access to health resources or the continuing spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant.

“Some of those places were places where Omicron kind of hit later. So like Maine. If you look at Maine right now, you would think, ‘Maine is highly vaccinated; why is Maine getting hit so heavily? They still have an outbreak going on there,’ ” Benjamin said. “Well, it’s because they got hit by Omicron later.”

Where Covid-19 is still ‘high’ but mask mandates are lifting

Some of the counties that still have “high” levels of Covid-19 are in states that either never had indoor mask mandates or lifted their mandates earlier on in the pandemic.

Last week, California dropped its indoor mask mandate for unvaccinated people. In that state, 11 counties have “high” levels of Covid-19. Illinois also lifted its statewide indoor mask requirement and has six counties with “high” levels of Covid-19.

Oregon and Washington plan to lift their rules requiring masks in indoor public places on March 11. There are four counties with “high” levels of Covid-19 in Oregon and four counties with “high” levels in the state of Washington, according to the CDC’s updated metrics.

Only one state and one US territory — Hawaii and Puerto Rico — still have indoor mask mandates on the state or territorial level and have not announced plans to lift those requirements.

Even in states where indoor mask requirements are lifted, counties can still require indoor mask-wearing on the local level, Benjamin told CNN.

“The states are saying, ‘OK, we governors are no longer going to manage it statewide. We’re now going to lift a mandate from our perspective, and we’re going to allow you to customize this,’ ” he said.

With the updated county-level CDC metrics, “I think the brilliance of what CDC did was, they were able to pull the data together at the local community level — to allow local communities to make those decisions when to take masks [off]. But it also gives them the capacity to re-mask, change testing policy as they need to, open and close things,” Benjamin said. “I would hope this not only puts it back in the hands of local elected officials but it also, I would hope, even more powerfully, puts it back in the hands of local public health officials. That’s what I hope.”

The CDC’s “Covid-19 community level” metrics are based on three pieces of data in a community: new Covid-19 hospitalizations, hospital capacity and new Covid-19 cases. The CDC’s website includes a list of US counties and their current Covid-19 levels.

Under the CDC guidance, updated last week, people in counties with low or medium Covid-19 community levels no longer need to wear masks indoors unless they are immunocompromised or at “high risk” for severe Covid-19 and if so, the CDC recommends to talk to their health care provider about wearing a mask.

In areas with “high” Covid-19 community levels, the CDC advises everyone to wear a mask in public indoor settings, including schools.

At all community levels, the CDC also recommends people get vaccinated and boosted, and get tested if they have symptoms.

The CDC’s new metrics are calculated at the county level to allow for a “more targeted” understanding of the effects of the coronavirus locally and to inform personal actions, such as mask wearing, as well as local policy decisions, Adriane Casalotti, chief of government and public affairs at the National Association of County and City Health Officials, wrote in an email to CNN on Thursday.

“However, there are two challenges for maintaining masking requirements at a local policy level. One would be state laws that prohibit such activity,” Casalotti wrote. “Another is less formal: the pressure of taking additional action. Especially as many in the public want to move beyond the pandemic, it can be a challenge to continue policies like indoor masking requirements, even if it makes sense scientifically due to local conditions.”

Overall, it can be difficult to track whether there has been an overall shift in mask mandates being lifted in areas that still have “high” Covid-19 levels, Casalotti said.

“This is harder to track as many locations dropped — or were in the process of moving away from — formal masking requirements even before the new, more targeted metrics were released,” she wrote.

“In some of those places, local policy sometimes shifted from indoor masking requirements to strong recommendations for indoor masking or supporting businesses to make those decisions location by location,” she added. “In those areas, the burden is really placed on the individual to know the status of the virus in their community, how to obtain high-quality masks, and when and where to use them to protect themselves and their families.”

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