Biden Remains Wary On Relaxing Mask Mandate & Other Covid19 Safety Protocols

In News

To Biden, the question of masks – when to wear them, when not to, and who gets to dictate – is inextricably tied to the pandemic’s emotions and politics. Biden and aides seem hesitant to issue new guidelines on wearing masks indoors, amid a sharp decline in Covid-19 cases in most areas.

In Summary

• President Biden and his health staff are working on the new transition to adapting to the pandemic’s next phase. States and local authorities are taking actions that conflict with federal public health guidance.

• Several state officials have begun to suggest that the federal government is out of touch with the rest of the country. The White House is hesitant to issue new guidelines regarding the use of masks indoors in the wake of the raging Covid-19 pandemic.

• A patchwork of local and state rules that constantly change as governors assert their authority. Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey announced Monday that the state’s mask requirement in schools would end on March 7.

• The White House is working the next steps in the fight against the Omicron surge with governors and other public health officials. Governor Kathy Hochul of New York said she had spoken with Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s top medical adviser.

NY Gov. Kathy Hochul. PHOTO COURTESY

White House remains reluctant about mask mandate as pandemic guidance deliberations drag on.

President Joe Biden and his administration’s health team have consulted with outside health experts and others for weeks to determine the best transition for adapting to the pandemic‘s new phase.

While they deliberate, large sections of the country are not waiting for their guidance, and some state officials are beginning to suggest the federal government is out of touch with the rest of the country.

According to sources, the administration’s top health officials evaluate how to handle federal guidance on mitigating steps such as masking in real-time. As a result, there is an internal understanding that the US has entered a new phase.

A critical aspect of the discussions has been determining what criteria will now be used to determine when and how communities should employ safety measures such as masking. Previously, the focus of the pandemic was on case counts; however, hospital capacity, hospitalization rates, and death rates are now all considered significant determinants. This, according to one administration official, is a “profound undertaking” since officials are establishing a new national framework for public health guidance.

“We want to be deliberate about it and guarantee that we not only make the correct decisions but also express them effectively in a diverse country where each state may look different,” the official explained.

While this effort continues, states and local governments across the country are taking actions that conflict with the Biden administration and federal public health guidance. The most egregious manifestation of this growing frustration is the decision by Democratic governors, who are typically in lockstep with the administration, to deviate from federal guidance this week by planning to repeal rules prohibiting masking inside and at schools. The decisions came after state officials pressured Biden for more specific guidelines last week at the White House.

Local and state-level adjustments occurring without formal approval from the White House or the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put Biden under pressure to catch up. And in some instances, they have led to misunderstandings regarding which guidelines to follow.

Perhaps the most perplexing aspect of the President’s guidance is masking. For Biden, the question of masks – when to wear them, when not to, and who gets to decide – is inextricably tied to the pandemic’s emotions and politics.

He enthusiastically announced last May in the White House Rose Garden the end of mask recommendations for fully vaccinated individuals, calling it a “wonderful day.” Then, two months later, he was obliged to reverse himself, expressing his frustration at having to mask up again at the time.

Now, Biden and his aides appear hesitant to issue new guidelines on mask use indoors, even though Covid-19 cases are declining rapidly in the majority of the country, even though transmission remains high in many areas and daily case counts have averaged about 209,000 over the last seven days, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

Biden and his top aides continue to wear masks indoors at the White House unless they are alone in an office. Wednesday, while meeting with executives from electric utility companies, the President removed his mask to speak – but remained sitting at least ten feet away from his guests.

Biden has back expressed frustration with the pandemic-era images, and he has expressed a desire to return to normalcy. Nonetheless, for a White House committed to following federal health professionals’ guidance, the rules appear immovable until the CDC modifies its recommendations.

While administration officials are considering updating guidelines and speaking with various experts on how to proceed, they said Wednesday that the rules remain essential in light of the ongoing pandemic.

“We are currently working on that guidance. We’re working on it, you know, keeping up with current trends, “Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Director of the CDC, stated. “Our hospitalization rates remain high, as do our mortality rates. Thus, while we work toward that goal and are encouraged by current trends, we are not yet there.”

CDC and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky . PHOTO COURTESY

The pandemic’s transition to a new phase

The unwillingness of the federal government to alter its guidelines has led to a patchwork of local and state rules that are constantly changing as individual governors take matters into their own hands.

Connecticut, New Jersey, and Delaware’s Democratic governors, as well as Oregon’s health agency, have established timeframes for the end of their states’ school mask restrictions, a symptom of the Covid-19 outbreak’s receding tide and the country’s transition to a “new normal.”

The White House has already chastised all Republicans’ state officials for enacting mask mandates. However, it has taken a softer tone with these Democratic governors, lifting limitations ahead of CDC guidelines, stating that local decisions will be made.

At a White House meeting last week, many governors asked Biden for more specific guidelines for states seeking to return from the pandemic and reclaim some normalcy.

Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey stated following his meeting with Biden that there was “a lot of excellent conversation about what the path from pandemic to endemic looks like.”

However, Murphy chose not to wait for an answer. Instead, he announced Monday that the state’s mask requirement in schools and child care facilities would be phased out on March 7. Instead, he described the action as “a big step back to normalcy for our children,” citing a drop in Covid cases, greater vaccines, and the lesser severity of the coronavirus variation Omicron.

The White House and CDC have responded by reiterating that official guidance states that schools should wear masks. As a result, several state officials have expressed concern that the Biden administration’s guidance is out of step.

“It does not reflect the current state of the American people. Numerous states believe we must transition from pandemic to endemic status. “According to a senior state official of a state that is reducing its school mask rule said on Wednesday. “It most emphatically does not reflect public feeling or reality on the ground.”

When asked Wednesday whether parents, children, and instructors who live in states that have relaxed the mandatory mask state in schools should still follow the CDC’s suggestion, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, “Yes.”

Meanwhile, Walensky stated that “such decisions can be made at the local level.”

The top state official stated that they would advise parents in their state to “make the greatest decision for you and your child.”

White House Covid-19 Response Coordinator Jeff Zients. PHOTO COURTESY

State officials are increasingly feeling pressed.

According to one California Democrat, ” constant contradictions between the administration’s messaging and the CDC guidance” were stacked on top of a patchwork of state and local legislation. As a result, many Americans “have lost trust in others and are increasingly making their own decisions,” the California Democrat stated.

Two officials emphasized the distinction between states relaxing mask regulations and the CDC changing its mask guidelines, noting that states make decisions based on their unique circumstances rather than the national average. Additionally, some administration officials have been cautious about making significant adjustments, fearful of being taken aback by another problematic variety.

Biden’s team has been meeting with outside health experts for weeks to outline a course forward as case counts continue to decline dramatically. However, preparations for a “return to normal” are still evolving. The planning process is compounded by painful recollections of prior periods when the pandemic appeared to be ending, only to be dashed by discovering new aggressive strains of the virus.

Several of the President’s senior advisers have also guided states working their statewide proposals.

On Thursday, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, who announced that her state would eliminate its statewide rule for indoor companies to wear masks or vaccinations – but not for schools – claimed she had conferred with Dr. Anthony Fauci Biden’s top medical adviser, in recent days.

“He responded, ‘Are you also considering infection rates and hospitalization rates?'” Hochul stated in reference to their discussion.

Not all governors have coordinated the repeal of their mask mandates with the White House, which has created some internal dissatisfaction. However, according to one official, White House Covid-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients frequently interacts with the National Governors Association’s leadership, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, and Murphy.

Tensions between the White House and the CDC over mask recommendations had surfaced previously during the pandemic, including when the agency was forced to reverse its position on indoor mask use over the summer.

Officials said that the administration was revising some of the criteria used to establish mask guidelines. Currently, the CDC recommends that areas with “high” or “substantial” transmission use masks indoors – a category that encompasses nearly the whole country.

However, public health professionals, including some within the administration, have recently begun shifting away from caseloads as the primary gauge for the pandemic instead of focusing on hospitalization and death rates as indicators of the crisis’s severity.

With cases and hospitalizations on the decline, Zients reiterated Wednesday that combating the Omicron outbreak is “priority number one.” Still, they noted that some outreach to governors and other public health officials over the next steps had taken place.

“We’re working toward a time when Covid will no longer disrupt our daily lives — a time when Covid will no longer be a perpetual crisis — when we’ll no longer have to dread lockdowns and shutdowns and can return to doing what we all love safely. We will accomplish this by using the robust set of tools that have been developed: vaccines, booster shots, treatments, and testing, “According to Zients.

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