Under pressure to ease, Biden weighs new virus response

WASHINGTON — Faced with mounting pressure to ease pandemic restrictions, the White House on Wednesday urged plans for a less disruptive phase of the national virus response. But impatient states, including Democratic New York, have made it clear that they are not waiting for Washington as public frustration mounts.

Governor Kathy Hochul announced that New York will end its COVID-19 mandate that requires face coverings in most state public institutions — but will keep it for schools. Illinois announced the same.

Earlier this week, New Jersey, Connecticut and Delaware announced all plans to join states that have or never had mask requirements for their schools, with Massachusetts set to follow at the end of the month. All but Massachusetts have governors who are Democrats, like President Joe Biden.
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Biden, who has long pledged to “follow the science” in tackling the pandemic, has been locked in, awaiting new guidelines from federal health officials, who so far still recommend that nearly all Americans wear masks in most indoor environments.

Press secretary Jen Psaki, who defended Biden, acknowledged that while people are tired of masks and “we understand where the country’s emotions are,” the government is following the advice of medical experts who rely on scientific evidence.

“That doesn’t happen at the speed of politics; it moves at the speed of data,” she said.

Clearly feeling the pressure, the White House for the first time acknowledged movement in its schedule and said private talks were underway to develop plans to move the country out of the emergency of the pandemic.

Federal COVID-19 Coordinator Jeff Zients said officials are consulting with state and local leaders and public health officials about possible next steps. But as governors and local officials push for clearer federal guidelines for easing or ending restrictions, states, cities and school boards are adopting a tricky patchwork of policies that vary widely from place to place.

“We’re working on that guidance,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, during a conference call at the White House on Wednesday. “Because we’ve been encouraged by current trends, we’re not there yet.”

The White House did not offer a timetable for the review or any indication of what it will recommend. And some critics say that’s not good enough.

“The tragic thing is, these are governors who probably would have followed White House guidelines,” said Dr. Leana Wen, a former Baltimore health commissioner. “They wanted CDC input and asked for it, but without a clear timeline, at some point they had to decide they couldn’t wait any longer. The fault is not with them, but with the CDC and by extension President Biden, who is making himself less and less relevant by the day.”

When asked if Biden appears to be out of touch with the country, Psaki defended his caution. “As a federal government, we have a responsibility to rely on data from the science, on the medical experts,” she said.

Pressured by whether Americans should follow less restrictive state or local rules or the stricter federal guidelines, she reiterated to the White House daily council: “We would advise any American to follow CDC guidelines.”

New York’s Hochul and others are not waiting. They are ending or relaxing many broad mandates, though her state will continue to mask rules in schools and health facilities.

“Given the decreasing cases, given the decreasing hospitalizations, we therefore feel comfortable lifting this tomorrow,” Hochul said on Wednesday.

Even government allies have argued that Biden should at least map out a roadmap to get back to business as usual.

He was hesitant, aides say, in part because of the sting of his cursory “declaration of independence” from the virus last summer, which proved premature in light of the delta and then the omicron strains. Now, however, COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have dropped significantly since peaking earlier this year amid the spread of the highly transmissible omicron variant, and the vast majority of Americans are protected from the virus by effective vaccines and treatments. booster.

Still, more than 2,000 people infected with the virus die every day in the US, and the government is concerned about it stopping as long as deaths remain high.

And Psaki noted that many Americans support continuing to wear masks. Some in the White House are pointing to the consternation expressed in December after the CDC cut isolation time for Americans who test positive.

While Biden and other government officials emphasize that the threat from the virus is much smaller than it was a year ago, before the widespread introduction of vaccines and booster shots and the adoption of rapid home tests and highly effective therapies, government officials recognize that most federal guidelines have been slow to catch up. to stay.

The CDC continues to recommend wearing an indoor mask in places with “significant or high transmission” of the virus, which was all over the US as of Wednesday except 14 counties nationwide.

State and local leaders have nevertheless announced plans to relax virus restrictions in the coming weeks as omicron cases decline, citing the protection offered by vaccines, as well as the increased availability of home testing kits and therapies for those who contract the virus. . Many of the restrictions were eased last year, but were reinstated when omicron flooded the country.

After more than a year of federally-driven top-down response, the emerging shift marks a return to the historic norm, where states typically had the first say in how they handle public health emergencies. The CDC can advise them and provide general guidelines for the nation, but in most situations it cannot command them what to do.

While the Biden administration has strongly backed down against GOP governors’ efforts to ban the wearing of masks, it says it will take a more flexible approach to jurisdictions making their own choices.

Policies that remove the requirements for masks “will have to be made at the local level,” depending on the number of cases, Walensky said.

Despite encouraging reports in the Americas, Western Europe and some other regions, the head of the World Health Organization insisted on Wednesday that “COVID is not done with us.”

When his agency reported that new infections have declined in the past week but virus deaths have risen worldwide, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus launched a new $23 billion campaign to fund WHO’s efforts to wide-scale COVID-19 rollout. -19 tests, treatments and vaccines around the world.

This post Under pressure to ease, Biden weighs new virus response

was original published at “https://time.com/6146937/biden-national-virus-response-pressure/”