The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was expected as early as next week to loosen its guidance on indoor masking as COVID cases and hospitalizations continue to drop and the White House considers a new nationwide strategy to move past the pandemic.
In a press briefing Wednesday, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said the agency was looking at new metrics for relaxing pandemic guidance, including masks, and would deliver that updated guidance "soon."
The idea would be that local communities could relax COVID restrictions, such as indoor masking, based on such factors as ICU bed capacity. While Walensky hasn't offered specifics on what the benchmarks might entail, she has said hospitalization levels are a key barometer.
"We want to give people a break from things like mask wearing when these metrics are better, and then have the ability to reach for them again should things worsen," Walensky told reporters.
The upcoming guidance comes as an increasing number of Democratic governors have already announced plans to lift mask mandates at the end of February or in March. Those decisions have largely been seen as a political calculation, driven by pandemic fatigue among voters.
The CDC has urged states to continue to recommend masks so long as the case number remain high, even as it considers new benchmarks. NBC News first reported on the timing of the expected guidance as early as next week.
"Omicron cases are declining, and we are all cautiously optimistic about the trajectory we are on," Walensky said Wednesday. "Things are moving in the right direction that we want to remain vigilant to do all we can so that this trajectory continues."
The White House denied any political involvement in the timing of the CDC's upcoming announcement. President Joe Biden is set to deliver his State of the Union address on March 1 in which he's expected to lay out his own detailed plan to move the nation forward.
When ABC News asked at the press briefing if the Biden administration had pressed the public health agency for new guidance by the end of the month -- ahead of Biden's speech – a White House official insisted the CDC had not been given a timetable.
Jeff Zients, Biden's chief COVID coordinator, said: "CDC is clearly in the lead here on the substance and the timing of masking guidance."