As the Omicron wave recedes in the United States, more states loosen mask policies and many Americans grow tired of restrictions, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday that the agency was working on guidance that was “relevant” and would encourage measures where they are most needed to safeguard public health.
“Things are moving in the right direction, but we want to remain vigilant to do all we can, so that this trajectory continues,” the director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, said at a pandemic news briefing. She said that the agency would soon issue new guidelines, including on face coverings, based on factors like hospital capacity, not just new coronavirus cases.
“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,” she said. “Should things worsen, if and when we update our guidance, we will communicate that clearly and it will be based on the data and the science.”
As of Tuesday, an average of about 85,000 people with the virus remained hospitalized nationwide, a decrease of more than 30 percent in the last two weeks, according to federal data. The number of Covid patients in intensive care units is also falling.
“Our hospitals need to be able to take care of people with heart attacks and strokes,” Dr. Walensky said. “Our emergency departments can’t be so overwhelmed that patients with emergent issues have to wait in line.”
While officials in California, Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon and elsewhere have announced that they are loosening indoor mask requirements, whether they apply to schools or in general, Dr. Walensky urged Americans to continue to wear masks if they have symptoms of the virus or feel unwell.
The speed of states’ actions has added pressure on the White House to announce a pandemic exit strategy sooner. Dr. Walensky said the new guidelines could be issued within a few weeks, in tandem with mask mandates lifting in several states.
“We’re encouraged by the dramatic declines we’re seeing in cases and hospitalizations nationwide,” said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert.
New coronavirus cases in the United States have plummeted to their lowest levels since September, with the seven-day average of U.S. cases declining to about 140,000 as of Tuesday, according to a New York Times database. Cases have now fallen below the peak of the Delta-driven wave, when they topped out at 164,418 on Sept. 1.
Deaths, though, remain high at about 2,300 a day. And despite the recent moves taken statewide, some cities and school districts are keeping their mandates in place.
At a separate news briefing on Wednesday, the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, emphasized that there was no conflict between federal and local guidance, despite their divergence.
“We will continue to look for and abide by C.D.C. guidance from the federal government,” she said. “That’s what we will follow, but different leaders will make decisions based on what they think is best for their communities.”
While the mayor of Washington, D.C., announced Monday that the city would soon begin to roll back restrictions, Ms. Psaki said the White House itself would hold off: “We’ll wait for the C.D.C. to make any changes here.”
At the pandemic briefing, Tom Inglesby, the White House testing coordinator, said the administration’s plan to mail 500 million rapid tests to Americans, free of charge, had reached a milestone on Wednesday.
He said that 200 million individual rapid tests had been shipped, representing about 85 percent of the 60 million households that ordered the tests through a new Postal Service website. Each household is limited to four tests for now.