As several blue states move forward with plans to drop mask mandates, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday the agency is exploring the possibility of updating its guidance, but added, “We are not there yet.”
What You Need To Know
- CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday the agency is exploring the possibility of updating its mask guidance, but added, “We are not there yet"
- The CDC continues to recommend that people wear masks indoors in public in areas where COVID-19 transmission is substantial or high, which is virtually the entire country
- But this week, several states with Democratic governors announced plans to rescind public and school mask requirements
- Walensky did not forcefully push back on governors for going against the CDC’s recommendations, saying COVID-19 policies ultimately should be made by state or local leaders
The CDC continues to recommend that people wear masks indoors in public in areas where COVID-19 transmission is substantial or high, which is virtually the entire country. Republican-led states largely bucked public mask mandates long ago. But this week, several states with Democratic governors, including California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, New Jersey, New York and Oregon, announced plans to rescind public and school mask requirements. The trend is being viewed as a major step toward moving the country out of its two-year-long pandemic status and into an endemic one.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday that she is encouraged by the falling number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, but, “We continue to recommend masking in areas of high and substantial transmission.”
She, however, did not forcefully push back on governors for going against the CDC’s recommendations, saying multiple times during a news briefing that COVID-19 policies ultimately should be made by state or local leaders.
“The policies at the local level will look at local cases, they'll look at how local hospitals are doing, they'll look at local vaccination rates,” Walensky said. “And they, as I understand it, in many of these decisions, are using a phased approach. Not all of these decisions are being made to stop things tomorrow.”
Governors this week have cited declines in COVID-19 cases for lifting mask mandates. New daily infections have plummeted nationally from their omicron peak of 805,000 on Jan. 15 to around 247,000 — a 69% drop. Hospitalizations are down 35% since Jan. 18, from about 153,000 to around 99,000.
But both numbers are still high compared to other points in the pandemic, and the seven-day average of deaths — currently around 2,400 a day — has remained relatively flat over the past two-plus weeks.
“Hospitalizations are still high,” Walensky said. “Our death rates are still high. So as we work towards (updating masking guidance), and as we are encouraged by the current trends, we are not there yet.”
Walensky said the CDC is monitoring a number of metrics — COVID-19 samples in wastewater, hospitalizations, deaths and more — in determining when the time is right to change its recommendations.
“We're, of course, taking a close look at this in real time, and we're evaluating rates of transmission, as well as rates of severe outcomes, as we look at updating and reviewing our guidance,” she said.
Jeff Zients, the White House COVID-19 Response Team coordinator, said President Joe Biden believes the U.S. is “moving toward a time when COVID won't disrupt our daily lives, a time when COVID won't be a constant crisis.”
But the White House's spokeswoman later said any change in policy from the president would be exclusively guided by the CDC and his other top medical advisers.
"He has made the commitment to the American people back when he ran for president, and what we've tried to abide by is that he would listen to the data, listen to the science," said White House press secretary Jen Psaki.
Psaki said the official opinion of the White House is that students, parents and teachers living in an area of the country with high transmission — which is nearly everywhere, according to CDC thresholds — should still follow federal guidance and wear a mask in school, even if their state guidance doesn't require one.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser, said the country is exiting “the full-blown pandemic phase of COVID-19” and that decisions on virus restrictions increasingly will be made on a local level.
Fauci, however, warned COVID-19 won’t be eradicated.
“But I hope we are looking at a time when we have enough people vaccinated and enough people with protection from previous infection that the COVID restrictions will soon be a thing of the past,” he said.