Momentum appears to be building behind calls to bring back universal mask-wearing – even for those who are vaccinated – including reported discussions in the White House and at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) about recommending masks for all Americans.
The Washington Post first reported that the idea was being batted around within the White House, even if it was something as minor as a change in messaging from top officials rather than a wholesale update of CDC guidance. That guidance was changed in May to say vaccinated people don’t need to wear masks indoors.
Some people have been pushing to require masks for vaccinated people for weeks. But the fact that such discussions are happening at high levels in the administration reflects the fact calls are increasing, especially among the political left, to force masks back on all Americans to stem the spread of the delta COVID variant.
And the Biden administration carefully tiptoed around questions about potentially updating mask guidance Thursday, declaring that no change in guidance has happened yet while not denying that a change could come.
“The head of the CDC, our public health arm, just spoke to this earlier this morning and made clear that there had not been a decision to change our mask guidance,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday. “We are guided by science and we’re guided by our public health experts and any decision would come from the CDC… There has been no decision to change our mask guidelines.”
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, testify before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 20, 2021. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, Pool) (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, Pool)
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky emphasized that vaccinated people have very significant protection from the virus and that people who aren’t vaccinated should wear masks. But she also declined to say whether the CDC might update its guidance to say vaccinated people should wear masks indoors.
“Overall the CDC recommendations haven’t changed,” she said.
In response to a separate query from Fox News, a CDC spokesperson made comments very similar to Walensky’s – touting the importance of vaccines while not denying that guidance from the agency could change.
Spokesperson Jasmine Reed also said, “People may want to wear masks and maintain physical distance if they are in an area with high case rates and lower vaccinations and/or where delta variant cases are rising.”
Biden himself said that his COVID-19 advisory board was looking into the matter Thursday, and also did not specifically rule out a change in recommendations.
“We follow the science,” Biden said. “What’s happening now is all the major scientific operations in this country and the 25-person group we put together are looking at all the possibilities of what’s happening now.”
Biden emphasized that if people are vaccinated, “you are safe,” but said the board is “investigating every aspect of any change that could or might take place.”
The CDC itself does not enforce or implement mask mandates – states and localities do. But many states and cities follow CDC guidance on the coronavirus closely, so any changes in the CDC’s posture on the virus could have a significant effect on whether Americans have to wear masks in their everyday life.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, July 20, 2021. Psaki in a Thursday press conference did not deny that the White House had discussions about changing its stance on COVID mask-wearing to encourage it for vaccinated people. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
But at least two major cities are moving to bring back universal masking even without decrees from the Biden administration. Los Angeles last week issued a new mandate for all citizens regardless of vaccination status to wear masks in indoor public spaces. And New Orleans on Wednesday issued an indoor mask advisory.
New Orleans made clear that the advisory was not a mandate. But the advisory still asked all people to wear a mask regardless of their vaccination status. It cited the fact that coronavirus cases in the city had increased tenfold in two weeks and an “alarming increase” in vaccinated people testing positive for the virus.
Fox News contributor Dr. Marc Siegel, a professor of medicine at the NYU Langone Medical Center, said Thursday that most focus on mask-wearing is misplaced and should instead be directed to increasing vaccination rates.
“As Mayor de Blasio of New York City said yesterday… the vaccine is a cannon and the mask is a pea shooter,” Siegel said. “Two shots of an mRNA vaccine are probably 84-85% effective at preventing infection from COVID and over 95% effective at keeping you out of the hospital.”
He added: “As far as masks are concerned, I have a problem with mask mandates because I think they make people feel bad and they make people feel punished.”
Siegel did say unvaccinated people should wear masks when they are in “close quarters,” and that it could make sense for a vaccinated person to wear a mask when they are “in close quarters with a bunch of unvaccinated people.” But, he added, the best way to reduce coronavirus cases is to work on the “entrenchment” of people who refuse to get the vaccine though outreach and a “softer tone.”
Johns Hopkins School of Medicine professor Dr. Marty Makary, also a Fox News contributor, took a more hardline stance against mask mandates in an interview earlier this month.
“At this point, everyone at-risk has had the opportunity to get vaccinated,” Makary said. “Those who are not immune are choosing to do so at their own personal risk.”
Maryland National Guard Sgt. Jason Grant (R) administers a Moderna coronavirus vaccine at CASA de Maryland’s Wheaton Welcome Center on May 21, 2021 in Wheaton, Maryland. Experts have emphasized that vaccines are the best way to slow the spread of COVID-19. (Getty Images)
Markary added that the initial reasoning for COVID restrictions in early 2020 wasn’t to prevent all infection but to prevent hospitals from being overrun. “That is no longer a concern… We have to put things in perspective,” Markary said.
Nevertheless, some who are pushing for more masks heralded the Washington Post’s reporting that the administration is considering a more serious mask push for vaccinated people.
“CHANGE IS COMING,” Eric Feigl-Ding, a senior fellow at the American Federation of Scientists, tweeted in response to the Washington Post report. “We needed this yesterday!”
And others who want to bring back universal masking doubled down on their calls this week.
“What is the purpose of lifting mask mandates when we know we’re not on track to reach 80% vaccination rate at anytime in the near future?” activist Bree Newsome tweeted Wednesday. And CNN medical analyst Leana Wen told the network Thursday that “we should follow the example of LA County and say that if there are places where vaccinated and unvaccinated people are mixing, then indoor mask mandates should still apply.”
Former Surgeon General Jerome Adams, who was among the earliest high-profile voices calling for a return to masks, wrote in the Washington Post, “We must work hard to increase vaccinations while simultaneously preparing the public for masking.”
“The CDC could help by acknowledging that its prior messaging has not been effective and actually harmful,” Adams added. “Instead of vax it or mask it, people might need to vax it and mask it.”
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