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Universal masking is no longer advised in Travis County under new CDC guidelines

A mask sitting on top of a picnic table.
Michael Minasi
A third-grader’s mask is set aside for lunch at a picnic table at Maplewood Elementary School last August.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday loosened masking guidance for Travis, Williamson and Bastrop counties based on a new way of measuring how COVID-19 affects health and health care systems.

The new community level metric is based on three county-level measurements: the number of new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people, the number of people hospitalized with the disease and the percentage of local hospital capacity they take up — all in the previous seven days.

Based on those factors, each county gets a community level of low, medium or high. Mask guidance and other recommendations vary by level. Travis, Williamson and Bastrop are rated low impact, while Blanco and Caldwell are considered high.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The guideline calls for people living in highly impacted counties to wear masks in public indoor spaces, including schools. The CDC suggests those in medium-impacted counties mask if they are immunocompromised or at high risk, or if they are in contact with someone who is. The agency doesn’t recommend universal masking for people in low-impacted counties like Travis, Williamson and Bastrop.

"Since July 2021, CDC recommended universal masking in schools no matter what level of impact COVID-19 was having on the community," Greta Massetti, an epidemiologist on the CDC's COVID response team, said. "With this update, CDC will now only recommend universal school masking in communities at the high level."

About 23% of counties in the U.S. are currently low, 39.6% are medium and 37.3% are high.

With widespread population immunity from previous disease and vaccinations, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said, the overall risk of severe disease is now generally lower.

“Now as the virus continues to circulate in our community, we must focus our effort beyond just cases in the community and direct our efforts toward protecting people for high risk of severe illness and preventing COVID-19 from overwhelming our hospitals and our healthcare system,” she said.

The new guidance also has recommendations for local leaders at different levels. For example, in counties that are at medium or high impact, the CDC recommends implementing enhanced prevention measures in high-risk congregate settings like correctional facilities and homeless shelters.

Previously, the CDC was using community transmission levelas a metric for mask guidance. That measures the number of new cases in the previous week for every 100,000 people in the county. It’s considered “high” if it is over 100. The number was significantly above that in most counties during the omicron surge.

The measure can also be high if there is a test positivity rate above 10%. Currently, Travis County has 75 cases per 100,000 people — a marked drop in the last week, but still considered “substantial.” By the CDC’s previous guidance, the recommendation would have called for everyone in the county to wear a mask in public indoor settings. The same goes for Williamson and Bastrop.

Regardless of a county’s community level, the CDC continues to recommend vaccines, boosters and getting tested if you’re exposed to someone with COVID-19 or have symptoms.

The CDC expects to update county levels weekly.

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Sangita Menon is a general assignment reporter for KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @sangitamenon.
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