The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Friday that it is “updating its framework to monitor the level of COVID-19 in communities,” which it uses to make recommendations on masking and other prevention measures.

Instead of looking primarily at cases and test positivity within a community, the agency now also will factor in hospitalizations and hospital capacity to determine whether the level of COVID-19 and severe disease is low, medium or high in a community.

“At the low level, there is limited impact on the healthcare system and low amounts of severe disease in the community. People should stay up to date with their vaccines and get tested if they’re sick,” Greta Massetti, Ph.D., MPH, chief of the CDC’s field epidemiology and prevention branch and a member of the agency’s COVID 19 Incident Management Team, said during a Friday media briefing.

“At the medium level, more people are experiencing severe disease in the community and they’re starting to see more impact on the healthcare system. At this level, CDC recommends that people who are high risk, such as someone who is immunocompromised, should talk to their healthcare provider about taking additional precautions and may choose to wear a mask,” she continued.

“As communities enter into the high level, there is a high amount of people experiencing severe disease and high potential for healthcare systems strains. At the high level, CDC recommends that everyone wear a mask indoors, in public, including in schools,” Massetti said.

You can visit the CDC’s website to see what level your county is at. Keep in mind, however, that the agency says that its “new COVID-19 community levels recommendations do not apply in healthcare settings, such as hospitals and nursing homes. Instead, healthcare settings should continue to use community transmission rates and continue to follow CDC’s infection prevention and control recommendations for healthcare settings.”

The agency maintains information for nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, including assisted living communities, on its website and also has web pages for retirement and shared housing administrators, owners and operators and residents.

It remains to be seen what the CDC’s new community guidance could mean for senior living and other long-term care providers. At least one long-term care industry advocate is calling for the federal agency, as well as the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, to “move quickly in reassessing guidance for long-term care settings.”

“News from the CDC today that our country has entered a new phase of the pandemic is certainly positive,” LeadingAge President and CEO Katie Smith Sloan said Friday. “While a shift toward pre-pandemic life is exciting, we remind America that a return to ‘normal’ is important for older adults living in long-term care, too.”

Inside and outside of long-term care, it’s also important to keep in mind that the CDC community guidance is not meant to address individual risk.

“The intent of this community guidance is to look at really severe disease — people who are coming into the hospital,” said CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, M.D., MPH. “We know that there’s going to be transmission of COVID 19 out there, and what we want to do is make sure that our hospitals are OK and that people are not coming in with severe disease.”

Businesses are welcome to make their own policies, Walensky said. Long-term care and other healthcare businesses, of course, may be beholden to local, state and federal rules. And as for individuals in their everyday personal lives, CDC officials say that people are welcome to exceed the guidance if that is what makes them feel comfortable.

“We should all keep in mind that some people may choose to wear a mask at any time based on personal preference. And importantly, people who wear high-quality masks are well-protected, even if others around you are not masking,” Massetti said. “And there are some situations where people should always wear a mask. For example, if they have symptoms, if they tested positive for COVID 19 or if they have been exposed to someone with COVID 19.”

In fact, individuals at higher risk for COVID-19 may need additional protection, Walensky said.

“Those who are immunocompromised or have underlying health conditions, those who have disabilities or those who live with people who are at risk — those people might choose to take extra precautions regardless of what level their community is in,” she said.

Let’s hope that people who have symptoms, test positive or have been exposed to the coronavirus do take advantage of the protection that masks offer when they’re out and about. As we learned earlier in the pandemic, an uptick in COVID-19 cases in long-term care facilities, where at-risk older adults live, can coincide with a higher rate in the greater community.

Lois A. Bowers is the editor of McKnight’s Senior Living.