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COVID: Mask recommendations may appear in additional parts of the US

WASHINGTON-

COVID-19 cases are rising in the United States — and could get worse in the coming months, federal health officials warned Wednesday as they urged hard-hit areas to consider re-issuing calls to mask indoors.

The rising number of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations is putting more of the country under guidelines from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which call for masks and other precautions to avoid infection.

Currently, increases are concentrated in the Northeast and Midwest. “(But) previous increases in infections in different waves of infection have shown that this is spreading across the country,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC director, at a White House briefing with reporters.

For an increasing number of areas, “we call on local leaders to encourage the use of prevention strategies such as masks in indoor public spaces and increased access to testing and treatment,” she said.

But officials have been wary of making concrete predictions, saying how much worse the pandemic will get will depend on several factors, including how much previous infections protect against new variants.

Last week, White House COVID-19 coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha, in an interview with The Associated Press, said the US will be increasingly vulnerable to the coronavirus this fall and winter unless Congress quickly approves new funding for more vaccines and treatments.

Jha warned that without additional funding from Congress, the virus would lead to “necessary deaths” in the fall and winter as the US runs out of treatment options.

He added that the US has already fallen behind other nations in securing supplies of the next generation of COVID-19 vaccines and said the domestic manufacturing base for at-home testing is already drying up as demand slacks.

Jha said domestic test makers have started closing lines and laying off workers, and in the coming weeks will start selling equipment and prepare to shut down the test manufacturing business entirely, unless the US government has money to buy more tests, as hundreds of millions were sent free to requesting households this year.

This would leave the US dependent on other countries to test supplies and risk shortages during a surge, Jha warned. About 8.5million households have placed orders for the latest tranche of 8 free trials since the order opened on Monday, Jha added.

The pandemic is now 2 1/2 years old. And the US has – depending on how you count them – seen five waves of COVID-19 in that time, with later waves fueled by mutant versions of the coronavirus. A fifth wave occurred mainly in December and January, caused by the Omicron variant.

The omicron variant spread much more easily than previous versions.

Some experts fear the country is now seeing signs of a sixth wave powered by an Omicron subvariant. On Wednesday, Walensky noted a steady increase in COVID-19 cases over the past five weeks, including a 26% jump nationwide over the past week.

Hospital admissions are also increasing, up 19% over the past week, although they remain much lower than during the Omicron wave, she said.

In late February, as that wave ebbed, the CDC released a series of new responses for communities where COVID-19 was loosening its grip, focusing less on positive test results and more on what’s happening in hospitals.

Walensky said more than 32% of the country currently lives in an area with moderate or high COVID-19 community levels, including more than 9% at the highest level where CDC recommends mask use and other mitigation measures.

As of the past week, an additional 8% of Americans lived in a county with moderate or high levels of COVID-19 community.

Officials said they are concerned that dwindling immunity and relaxed mitigation measures across the country could be contributing to an ongoing spike in infections and diseases across the country. They encouraged people – especially older adults – to get booster shots.

Some health experts say the government should take clearer and bolder steps.

The CDC’s community-level guidelines are confusing to the public and don’t give a clear picture of how much virus transmission is occurring in a community, said Dr. Lakshmi Ganapathi, an infectious disease specialist at Harvard University.

When government officials make recommendations but don’t set rules, “ultimately it rests on each individual choosing the public health that works for them. But that’s not what’s effective. When you talk about curbing hospitalizations and even deaths, all of these interventions work better when people do it together,” she said.

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Stobbe reported from New York.

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