- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 9, 2022

President Biden‘s coronavirus team said Wednesday it is sticking with its guidance on indoor masking as it combats the back end of the omicron surge, even as the Democratic administration finds itself lagging behind blue-state governors who are rapidly lifting divisive COVID-19 rules.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said her scientists are reevaluating mask advice but are not prepared to water down its guidance. CDC still recommends people cover their faces in indoor public spaces in geographic areas of high or substantial transmission.

“That’s much of the country right now, in public indoor settings. And so 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,” Dr. Walensky said at a White House COVID-19 briefing. “Our hospitalizations are still high, our death rates are still high. So as we work towards that and as we are encouraged by the current trends, we are not there yet.”

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul on Wednesday dropped an indoor mask mandate that forced businesses to either seek proof of full vaccination or demand mask-wearing while on the premises.

Leaders in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut and California have made similar moves in recent days, citing the need to live with the virus and let people make their own decisions now that omicron is receding, and vaccines and boosters are plentiful.

Some say the Democratic Party is changing its tune because it sees mandates as a political liability in a pivotal election year.

SEE ALSO: N.Y. Gov. Kathy Hochul set to drop indoor mask mandate: Report

Ms. Hochul is up for reelection this year, and New Jersey GOP Executive Director Tom Szymanski accused Mr. Murphy of relenting on mask rules because the governor is trying to raise his national profile.

“Let’s be clear: It’s the politics, not the science, that have changed, and it’s now more apparent than ever that Phil Murphy’s decisions have been based on political science all along,” Mr. Szymanski said.

Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, New York Democrat, offered a preview of how Democrats plan to message the scale-down of mandates. He said the governor’s decision to let the mask mandate lapse is a sign the “Democrats’ plan to fight COVID is working.”

“Thank you to President Biden and Governor Hochul for getting us to this point,” he said. “We are making tremendous progress thanks to their strong, science-based leadership,” he tweeted. “I fully support the decision to roll back mask mandates.”

Dr. Walensky did not outline clear benchmarks for changing federal mask guidance but defended the pace of federal review. She said local leaders will make decisions based on their situations and that some governors are taking a gradual approach instead of flipping the switch on mandates. In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom decided to lift a state mask mandate as of Feb. 15 but left a requirement on schools in place.

The CDC recommends universal masking in K-12 schools, although New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said he will lift his mask requirement on schools and day care centers as of March 7.

SEE ALSO: Stacey Abrams apologizes for going maskless at school after outcry

Delaware Gov. John Carney, a Democrat, this week said a state indoor mask mandate will end Friday but the mandate on schools will last until March 31.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, said Wednesday the school mask mandate would end on Feb. 28, while Ms. Hochul said she is still evaluating what to do about schools after lifting the statewide rule on businesses.

“Not all of these decisions are being made to stop things tomorrow, but they’re looking at a phased approach. And so what I would say again, they have to be done at a local level,” Dr. Walensky said.

Mandates issued by states dictate what people are required to do while CDC issues guidance that does not amount to a requirement but is often perceived as one, given the CDC’s historical influence over state and local policy.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that Americans should follow the CDC guidelines if they are confused about what to do.

She said Mr. Biden will rely on his health and medical experts to review the situation and make any recommended changes.

Pressed to outline a way forward for the country, Mr. Biden‘s COVID-19 coordinator, Jeff Zients, said the White House is in constant consultation with Health Secretary Xavier Becerra and governors about a normal future even as they attempt to control an omicron surge that accounts for 240,000 cases per day and about 102,000 hospitalized patients — down from 150,000 three weeks ago.

“While cases and hospitalizations are trending downward, we do remain focused on fighting the omicron surge. So that’s priority number one,” Mr. Zients said.

He said Mr. Biden “has been clear that we’re moving toward a time when COVID won’t disrupt our daily lives, a time when COVID won’t be a constant crisis, so we’re no longer fearing lockdowns and shutdowns but getting back to safely doing what we all love. In doing so, we will rely on the powerful set of tools that have been built — the vaccines, the booster shots, treatments and testing.”

“We know that in different areas of the country, cases have fallen more significantly, and this will lead to different approaches and different timing, and we will continue to coordinate closely with state and local leaders,” Mr. Zients said.

Ms. Hochul decided to let her mask mandate expire Thursday instead of renewing the rule, which sparked legal fights and protests around the state, particularly among conservatives on Long Island.

The governor said the state was moving into a “new phase” of the pandemic and pointed to hospitalizations that decreased 63% since Jan. 12.

“Why is all this happening? Because New Yorkers and businesses stepped up and did the right thing,” Ms. Hochul said. “And I will always be grateful for them for being the reason these numbers have been declining.”

For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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