The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has responded to speculation that it may be considering the return of mask mandates amid a rise in coronavirus infections linked to the emergence of new variants of the virus.
A spokesperson for the agency told Newsweek it currently has no intention to call for a return of mask mandates, but didn’t deny that this might change if cases of the new variants were to rise significantly.
“[The] CDC does not issue mandates, we make recommendations, and they are based on the current circumstances,” they said. “We will continue monitoring and will adjust our recommendations accordingly.”
Some private institutions, hospital operators and colleges have reintroduced the requirements for staff or visitors to wear masks while at their sites to limit the spread of the new variants— EG.5 and BA.2.86—which have recently emerged, prompting conjecture that fresh COVID restrictions may be on the horizon.
Though the World Health Organization has categorized the former variant as of low risk to public health, the CDC has assessed the latter to be more likely to infect people who have existing immunity to the virus, either through vaccination or prior infections.
In the week to August 19, there were more than 15,000 hospitalizations due to COVID infections across the U.S., the latest CDC monitoring figures show—a rise of nearly 19 percent on the previous week. Admissions have been steadily rising since July, but are far below the highest peaks of the pandemic and appear to be localized into hotspots.
The CDC spokesperson noted that hospitalization rates were “currently low for more than 97 percent of the country” and said that its advice “for individual and community actions around COVID-19 are tied to hospital admission levels.”
“Anyone may choose to wear a mask any time,” they added. “[The] CDC continues to recommend that all people are up to date on their COVID-19 vaccines and take steps to [protect] themselves and others.”
To that end, the CDC hasn’t updated its guidance regarding wearing masks since May.
Speculation that the federal government could be considering the reintroduction of mask mandates was spurred on by the re-emergence of a Department of Health and Human Services report, first published in November 2022, recommending preventative measures to protect those with long-term illness as COVID circulates in the population.
Even if the federal government wanted to bring back mask requirements, it could face legal challenges that would prevent the enforcement of any policy.
In April 2022, a federal judge in Florida ruled that a federal transportation mask mandate was unlawful and had “exceeded” the CDC’s authority.