More than 90% of U.S. population in areas where masks not needed -CDC

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People wear masks as they pass through a pedestrian subway as cases of the infectious coronavirus Delta variant continue to rise in New York City, New York, U.S., July 26, 2021. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

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WASHINGTON, March 3 (Reuters) - The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Thursday said some 93% of the U.S. population live in locations where COVID-19 levels are low enough that people do not need to wear masks indoors.

On Friday, the CDC dramatically eased its COVID-19 guidelines for when Americans should wear masks indoors, saying they could drop them in counties experiencing what it described as low or medium COVID-19 levels. read more

The latest figures are an increase from just a week ago, a further indication that COVID hospitalizations - a key benchmark for the new masking recommendations - continue to fall.

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When it announced the revised guidelines, the CDC said about 70% of U.S. counties and 72% of the U.S. population were in communities where indoor face coverings are no longer recommended. The CDC plans to update its county ratings weekly.

The agency said on Thursday that 85.4% of counties now rank as low or medium risk and 92.9% of the population lives in those counties.

Still to be determined is whether the Biden administration will extend mask requirements for transit hubs and on airplanes, trains and buses. The current transit mask order expires on March 18 but could be extended. The White House said this week the issue is being evaluated.

The masking guidelines announced last week shifted from a focus on the rate of COVID-19 transmission to local hospitalizations, hospital capacity and infection rates.

Under the prior guidelines, 95% of U.S. counties were considered to be experiencing high transmission, leaving just 5% of U.S. counties under the agency's recommendation for abandoning indoor mask requirements.

A growing number of federal agencies have told government employees this week they can stop wearing masks indoors in federal buildings in the Washington, D.C. area and other low or medium COVID areas, including the State Department, Pentagon, Transportation Department, Federal Aviation Administration and Justice Department.

The White House directed agencies to revise federal employee masking and testing rules no later than Friday, according to a memo on Monday first reported by Reuters. The guidance covers about 3.5 million employees at federal agencies.

In counties with low community COVID levels, federal agencies also do not need to regularly screen unvaccinated employees for COVID-19, the guidance said.

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Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Leslie Adler and Bill Berkrot

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