Faced with mounting pressure to relax pandemic restrictions, the White House insisted Wednesday that it is planning a less disruptive phase of the national virus response. However, as public dissatisfaction grows, impatient states, including Democratic New York, have made it clear that they will not wait for Washington.
Gov. Kathy Hochul announced that New York will repeal its COVID-19 mandate requiring face coverings in most indoor public places, but will retain it in schools. Illinois made the same announcement.
Earlier this week, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Delaware all announced plans to join the states that have either eliminated or never had mask requirements for their schools, and Massachusetts will follow suit at the end of the month. Except for Massachusetts, all have Democratic governors, including President Joe Biden. In defending Biden, press secretary Jen Psaki said that while people are tired of masks and “we understand where the emotions of the country are,” the administration is listening to medical experts who rely on scientific evidence.
Clearly feeling the pressure, the White House acknowledged movement in its planning for the first time, stating that private conversations have been taking place to develop plans for guiding the country away from the pandemic’s emergency phase.
Jeff Zients, the federal COVID-19 coordinator, stated that officials are consulting with state and local leaders, as well as public health officials, on potential next steps. However, as governors and local officials push for clearer federal guidelines for easing or eliminating restrictions, states, cities, and school boards are adopting an awkward patchwork of policies that vary greatly from place to place.
When asked whether Americans should follow less stringent state or local regulations or the stricter federal guidelines, she reiterated the White House’s daily advice: “We would advise any American to follow the CDC guidelines.”
Hochul and others in New York aren’t waiting. They are repealing or modifying many broad mandates, though her state will continue to conceal rules in schools and health care facilities.
According to his aides, he has been hesitant in part because of the sting of his brief “declaration of independence” from the virus last summer, which proved premature in the face of the delta and then omicron strains. However, COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have dropped significantly since they peaked earlier this year due to the spread of the highly transmissible omicron variant, and the vast majority of Americans are now protected against the virus by effective vaccines and boosters.
Despite this, more than 2,000 people infected with the virus die in the United States every day, and the administration is concerned about easing up while the death toll remains high.
Psaki also stated that many Americans support the continued use of masks. Some in the White House point to the outcry that erupted in December after the CDC reduced the length of isolation for Americans who tested positive.
While Biden and other administration officials emphasize that the virus’s threat is much lower than it was a year ago, before the widespread use of vaccines and booster shots, as well as the approval of rapid at-home tests and highly effective therapeutics, administration officials admit that most federal guidelines have been slow to catch up.
Despite this, state and local officials have announced plans to relax virus restrictions in the coming weeks as omicron cases decline, citing the benefits of vaccines as well as increased availability of at-home testing kits and therapeutics for those who do contract the virus. Many restrictions were lifted last year, only to be reinstated as omicron swept the country.
Following more than a year of a top-down federal response, the emerging shift represents a return to the historical norm, in which states have typically had the first say in how they handle public health emergencies. The CDC can advise them and provide general guidance for the country, but it cannot order them to do anything in most cases.
While the Biden administration has strongly opposed Republican governors’ efforts to prohibit mask-wearing requirements, it is indicating that it will be more accommodating to jurisdictions that make their own decisions.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus launched a new $23 billion campaign to fund WHO’s efforts to lead a global rollout of COVID-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines as his agency reported a drop in new infections but an increase in virus deaths over the past week.