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CDC still recommends indoor masking in high-risk areas. That includes the Tampa Bay region

 A shopper wears a proactive mask at the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia on Feb. 16, 2022.
Matt Rourke
A shopper wears a proactive mask at the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia on Feb. 16, 2022.

A major shift in federal COVID policy freed much of the country of wearing masks indoors, but not in counties considered high risk. That includes much of Florida's Gulf Coast.

A major shift in federal COVID-19 policy announced Friday freed much of the country of wearing masks indoors. But not in the greater Tampa Bay area.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said people don't need masks if transmission of the coronavirus is controlled and hospitals are not strained. Areas ranked at low or medium risk are free to forgo their masks indoors.

However, masks are still recommended indoors for people in areas rated high risk.

That includes Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando, Citrus, Manatee and Sarasota counties, according to the CDC's community level website, updated Friday, Polk and Orange are listed as medium risk.

Areas of Northeast Florida are also listed as high risk, including Duval, St. Johns, Clay, Nassau and Baker counties.

The majority of the state's East Coast, south of Northeast Florida, is rated medium risk, as are South Florida counties Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach.

CDC website: Click here to check your community's level here.

Under the new guidance, nearly 70% of the U.S. population lives in areas considered to be low or medium risk, the CDC said. About 38% of U.S. counties are in the new high-risk category, where mask wearing is recommended, but they account for only 28% of the population.
One reason for the high risk in Northeast Florida could be the reluctance of people to get vaccinated. Duval, for example, has long lagged the rest of the state in percentage of people vaccinated.

The move to ease masking guidance nationally, federal officials say, reflects current conditions at this phase of the pandemic, including widespread immunity through vaccination and prior infection as well as better access to testing and treatments.

"We want to give people a break from things like mask-wearing," CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said at a press briefing Friday, adding that new risk guidelines that the agency is implementing will help people know when to reach for masks again if conditions warrant.

Health officials emphasized that people should still wear masks if they wish or if they are personally at high risk. And regardless of local conditions, they should mask if they have COVID-19 symptoms, a positive test or have been exposed to someone with COVID-19.

Information from NPR writers Pien Huang and Carmel Wroth was used in this report.

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Randy Roguski
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