Faced with mounting demand to relax pandemic restrictions, the White House said Wednesday that it is working on a less disruptive phase of the national viral response. But, as public dissatisfaction builds, impatient states, especially Democratic New York, have made it clear that they will not wait for Washington.
New York Governor Kathy Hochul said that the state’s COVID-19 law regulating facial coverings in most indoor public places will be repealed, although the law will remain in place for schools. Illinois has made the same announcement.
New Jersey, Connecticut, and Delaware all announced intentions earlier this week to join the list of states that have either lifted or never had mask restrictions for their schools, and Massachusetts will follow suit at the end of the month. All governors, with the exception of Massachusetts, are Democrats, including President Joe Biden.
Biden, who has long committed to “follow the science” in dealing with the epidemic, is hemmed in, waiting for new direction from federal health professionals, who continue to suggest that practically everyone in the United States wear masks in most indoor situations.
While people are tired of masks and “we appreciate where the emotions of the country are,” press secretary Jen Psaki defended Biden, saying that the administration is following the advise of medical specialists who depend on scientific facts.
She explained, “That doesn’t move at the speed of politics; it goes at the speed of facts.”
Clearly feeling the heat, the White House admitted movement in its strategy for the first time, indicating that secret meetings have been taking place to build measures for leading the country away from the pandemic’s emergency phase.
Authorities are working with state and local leaders, as well as public health officials, on possible next actions, according to federal COVID-19 coordinator Jeff Zients. However, as governors and local officials push for clearer federal standards for reducing or eliminating limitations, states, towns, and school boards are adopting an incongruent patchwork of regulations that vary greatly from one location to the next.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a White House teleconference on Wednesday, “We are working on that recommendation.” “We are not there yet, despite the fact that current trends have encouraged us.”
The White House gave no indication of when the study would be completed or what it would suggest. Some detractors argue that this isn’t good enough.
Dr. Leana Wen, a former Baltimore health commissioner, said, “The terrible thing is that these are governors that would probably have followed the White House’s direction.” “They wanted CDC advice and asked for it, but because there was no clear deadline, they had to determine at some point that they couldn’t wait any longer.” The blame is not theirs, but the CDC’s, and by extension, President Biden’s, which is becoming increasingly irrelevant with each passing day.”
Psaki justified Biden’s prudence when asked if he looked out of touch with the public. “We have a responsibility as a federal government to depend on facts, research, and medical specialists,” she added.
When asked if Americans should follow less stringent state or municipal regulations or the more stringent federal instructions, she reiterated the White House’s daily advice, saying, “We would urge any American to follow the CDC standards.”
Hochul and others in New York aren’t waiting. Many major regulations are being repealed or eased, while her state will continue to hide restrictions in schools and health facilities.
“Given the falling instances, given the declining hospitalizations,” Hochul said Wednesday, “we feel comfortable lifting this, in effect tomorrow.”
Even administration friends have urged that Biden should at least set forth a plan for returning to normality.
According to aides, he has been cautious because of the sting of his brief “statement of independence” from the virus last summer, which proved premature in the face of the delta and then omicron strains. However, since the outbreak of the highly transmissible omicron version earlier this year, COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations have decreased significantly, and the great majority of Americans are now protected against the virus by effective vaccinations and boosters.
Despite this, more than 2,000 individuals infected with the virus die in the United States every day, and the government is concerned about easing up while the death toll remains high.
Many Americans, according to Psaki, are in favor of continuing to wear masks. Some in the White House refer to the outrage expressed in December after the CDC reduced the period spent in isolation for Americans who test positive for HIV.
While Biden and other administration officials stress that the virus is substantially less of a concern than it was a year ago, before the widespread use of vaccinations and booster doses, as well as the approval of swift at-home testing and very powerful medicines, most regulatory standards have lagged behind.
The CDC continues to suggest wearing an indoor mask in areas with “substantial or high transmission” of the virus, which included all of the United States save 14 rural counties as of Wednesday.
Despite this, state and municipal officials have announced plans to relax virus restrictions in the coming weeks as omicron instances decline, citing vaccination protections as well as better access to at-home diagnostic tools and medicines for individuals who do contract the virus. Many limitations were loosened last year, only to be restored as the omicron virus spread across the country.
The current change reflects a return to the historical norm, where states have traditionally had the first say in how they address public health emergencies, after more than a year of a top-down federally directed approach. The CDC can give them advice and provide broad recommendations for the country, but it can’t tell them what to do in most cases.
While the Biden administration has fought hard against Republican governors’ efforts to repeal mask-wearing laws, it is signaling that it will be more accommodating to counties that make their own decisions.
According to Walensky, policies requiring the use of a lifting mask “will have to be set at the municipal level” based on case rates.
Despite positive findings from the Americas, Western Europe, and other countries, the World Health Organization’s director-general emphasized on Wednesday that “COVID isn’t through with us.”
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus launched a new $23 billion campaign to finance WHO’s efforts to spearhead a global deployment of COVID-19 diagnostics, treatments, and vaccinations as his organization reported that new infections declined but viral mortality surged over the last week.