CDC updates mask guidance as PHE ends: What to know

The CDC published updated masking recommendations for healthcare facilities days before the nation's May 11 COVID-19 public health emergency expiration.

Hospitals and other healthcare facilities should take a risk-based approach that considers local  SARS-CoV-2 transmission to determine when to implement universal masking, the updated guidance says. Universal masking should still be used when a unit or facility is experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak. Dozens of hospitals and health systems have done away with mandatory masking since March.

"The overall benefit of broader masking is likely to be the greatest for patients at higher risk for severe outcomes from respiratory virus infection and during periods of high respiratory virus transmission in the community," the CDC said. "Facilities should consider several factors when determining how and when to implement broader mask use," including the types of patients cared for, stakeholder input and available data. 

The public health emergency's expiration on May 11 will undo many COVID-19-era flexibilities that reshaped the nation's healthcare system over the past three years. Costs for COVID-19 tests and vaccines will shift from the government to the commercial market, states will no longer be required to report COVID-19 data and CMS is planning to drop vaccine requirements for healthcare workers. States have also already begunredetermining who is and is not eligible for Medicaid. 

As states halt data collection efforts, the CDC will also end reporting of national COVID-19 case counts and test positivity rates, and will instead focus on hospital admission levels and the percentage of COVID-19-associated deaths compared to all reported deaths. 

When the virus emerged in 2020, "our goal was to count every snowflake," Nirav Shah, MD, the CDC's deputy principal director, told NBC News. Now, "we don't need to be out there counting every snowflake. We can just take a ruler out and understand how much snow has fallen." 

The federal government has, however, extended several flexibilities for healthcare providers and Americans past May 11:

  • Medicare telehealth flexibilities and acute hospital care at home waivers and flexibilities  will remain in place through 2024.

  • Pharmacy workers will be allowed to administer COVID-19 and flu vaccines, as well as order and dispense COVID-19 tests and therapeutics distributed by the federal government through 2024.

  • The general public can continue to order free COVID-19 tests from through the end of May, the White House said May 9. 

For a more in-depth look at what the public health emergency's end means for healthcare, click here.


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