The new system bases your need to wear a mask on the COVID-19 risk in your county.
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Hand holding a mask with the shadow of a covid cell behind it
Credit: Getty Images / Xinzheng / zhengshun tang

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new masking and COVID-19 prevention recommendations on Friday to help you stay safe based on the risk level in your community. 

The CDC has developed three levels of COVID-19 risk based on the percentage of hospital beds being used by COVID-19 patients, hospital admissions and the number of new cases in a county: low, medium and high. You can find the complete breakdown of numbers used to calculate those levels in the CDC's announcement presentation

Those risk levels correspond with different COVID-19 prevention steps suggested by CDC officials, such as:

  • Low risk: Stay up to date with COVID-19 vaccinations and get tested if you have symptoms.
  • Medium risk: If you have a high risk for contracting COVID-19, consult your doctor about wearing a mask in public or take other precautions, stay up to date with COVID-19 vaccinations and get tested if you have symptoms.
  • High risk: Wear a mask indoors in public, stay up to date with COVID-19 vaccinations and get tested if you have symptoms or are planning to see an immunocompromised friend.

You can check to see what level your county is at using the CDC's COVID-19 County Check. Some areas, like Jackson County in Arkansas, have not been given a risk level due to a lack of data from the county. The CDC's overall map of risk levels by county will update on a weekly schedule. 

As of Friday, when the new system was announced, Greta Massetti, Ph.D., M.P.H., of the CDC COVID-19 Response Incident Management Team, estimated that 70% of Americans live in a county with a low or medium risk level. Of the United States' 3,006 counties, 23% of counties are at a low risk level, 39.6% of counties are at a medium risk level, and 37.3% of counties are at a high risk level.

These recommendations apply to the general population as well as students in public schools, who the CDC previously advised should wear masks indoors at all times. Advice from the CDC is not a mandate, and it remains up to local governments and policymakers to determine masking requirements on state and local levels.

In a media telebriefing, experts from the CDC once again underlined that N95 masks are the best masks available, though KN95 masks have similar filtration. The most important thing is finding a mask with the best fit and filtration for you—after all, the best mask is one you'll feel comfortable wearing for extended periods.

CDC officials also clarified that they will use the number of patients with COVID-19 in their calculation for hospital beds regardless of the reason they were admitted to the hospital. In the telebriefing, CDC Director Rochelle P. Walensky, M.D., M.P.H., noted that the percentage must include COVID-19 patients admitted to the hospital for any reason because many jurisdictions do not differentiate those cases in their data reports.

Walensky went on to add that there's nothing wrong with being overly cautious, so those who prefer to wear a mask in public spaces are free to do so—and their choice should be respected by others.

"Anybody is certainly welcome to wear a mask at any time, if they feel safer wearing a mask," Walensky said. "So we are absolutely endorsing if you feel more comfortable wearing a mask, feel free to do so. And we should encourage people to have that liberty to be able to do so."

Check your county's risk level on the CDC website, and if you're on the hunt for masks, check out this roundup of the best KN95 masks you can buy online.

The situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to change quickly; it's possible that information or data has changed since publication. While EatingWell is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations by using the CDC, WHO and their local public health department as resources.