A rush of moves by Democratic states laying out timelines to lift mask mandates is leaving a cautious White House behind and hiking pressure on top government health officials to codify an Omicron endgame.
The waning Omicron wave is unleashing what – hopefully – could be one of the last clashes between public health and politics of the pandemic.
The White House, according to new CNN reporting, is “thinking about” a plan for the post-pandemic emergency period. But on Monday, the Biden administration was unwilling to endorse an easing of school masking, one of its key weapons against Covid-19.
This may be a case of twice bitten, thrice shy, because President Joe Biden ran for office vowing to “shut down” the virus and declared partial independence from it on July Fourth last year, and on both occasions paid a political price for raising expectations too high, too fast.
But now he is facing pressure to take a large step toward returning to normality as the Omicron wave ebbs as quickly as it arrived and local officials take matters into their own hands. On Monday alone, three Democratic governors – in New Jersey, Delaware and Connecticut – and the public health department in Oregon set timelines to end classroom masking mandates, in the latest twist of a public health saga that sent a political tsunami through schools. Their moves hiked pressure on other blue states, like New York, to follow suit. Many Republican-led states have no such mandates, and populist governors have touted resistance to public health guidelines to boost their political careers.
Everything about the highly infectious Omicron variant, which struck late last year, unrolled at an accelerated rate. It quickly inundated schools, crunched travel and left supermarket shelves empty. But with infection curves plunging vertically in some states, the ever-shifting politics of the pandemic are transforming again.
The quickly evolving situation is sparking yet another controversy over whether the desperation to consign the virus to history is being driven by science or politics. Just last week, a group of governors who met the President at the White House told him it was time to “move away from” the pandemic, according to Arkansas GOP Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
White House: No changes to guidelines
The new moves on masking from Democratic-controlled states appeared to outpace the White House’s messaging – not for the first time.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki insisted on Monday that there had been no changes to US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance that recommend masking in schools or any imminent new blueprints for governors, though she said it was up to local school districts to make their own decisions.
Psaki recalled Biden’s comments less than two weeks ago as she said: “We certainly don’t see this moment now as the new normal … but we want to get to a point … where Covid is not disrupting our daily lives.”
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, however, said on Monday that it was time to set a date to shift away from mandating the masks that have become a symbol of young students’ childhood lost to the pandemic.
“Our case count, hospitalizations, the spot positivity rate are all dropping like a rock,” the Democratic governor said on “The Lead with Jake Tapper” on CNN. He added that progress on child vaccinations also meant that the time was right to ease restrictions in schools. Murphy’s move, which will no longer require kids and adults to wear masks in school, will come into force in a month, by which time Covid-19 cases in the state are expected to fall further.
“This is not a declaration of victory as much as an acknowledgment that we can responsibly live with this thing,” Murphy said in making his announcement.
Also on Monday, Delaware Gov. John Carney announced that a universal indoor mask mandate will end on Friday and school mask mandates will expire March 31. And his fellow Democrat, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, recommended ending the statewide mask mandate in schools and child care centers on February 28. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who survived an effort to recall him from office spurred in large part by his Covid restrictions, announced on Monday the Golden State would lift its statewide indoor mask mandate for vaccinated individuals next week.
Mask moves divide medical opinion
Some health professionals back such moves, arguing that while the threat of Covid-19 has not passed, a variant that is mostly not lethal to those who are fully vaccinated and the swiftly falling tally of new cases mean it’s reasonable to act now.
Dr. Leana Wen, a CNN medical analyst, argued the CDC needs to be changing its guidance, noting it doesn’t have to be done overnight. “But we need to hear their leadership here. The CDC has already lost a lot of trust and credibility. This is their time to rebuild and remove restrictions as quickly as they were put in,” added Wen, an emergency physician and professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health.
“It allows us the opportunity to actually peel off one of those restrictions that has been so controversial,” Dr. Carlos del Rio, executive associate dean of the Emory University School of Medicine, said on CNN’s “Newsroom,” arguing that attention should be turned to things like improving ventilation in schools.
The latest iteration of state masking policy emerged as new infections from Covid-19 tumble in most states and with optimism mounting that as the pandemic reaches the two-year mark, the country is closer than ever to liberation.
Dr. Richard Besser, a former acting director of the CDC, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on “The Situation Room” on Monday that governors were making decisions based on slowing Covid-19 infections.
“The trends we are seeing are very encouraging. If they continue, then there is light at the end of the tunnel for a lot of children in schools,” said Besser, a pediatrician, who called on officials to explain that changes are based on an improving outlook – in case they have to change course.
“If things turn around and go in the other way, we may be back to saying we have to put masks back on children,” said Besser, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
But not all health professionals believe that now is the time to dispense with basic measures like masking in schools, warning that while infections are coming down, they remain high in some areas. And more than 2,500 Americans are still dying every day from Covid – a reality to which much of the country appears to have become numb.
Dr. Jonathan Reiner, a CNN medical analyst, said Monday that while New Jersey’s case load was 90% lower than at its Omicron peak, its figures were still 15 times higher than they were last summer.
“We’re moving in the right direction. But we’re not there yet,” Reiner, a professor of medicine at George Washington University, told Tapper.
“Only 55% of kids between 12 and 17 are fully vaccinated and only 22% of kids between 5 and 11 are fully vaccinated. So the combination of still a lot of virus in the community and not a lot of kids vaccinated, to me, says that we need to wait a little bit longer until there’s less virus in the community.”
“I know everybody is impatient,” Reiner added. “I want to drop the masks too.”
Politics and science at odds again
Such concerns may explain why the White House is more reticent than some state-level Democrats to take the lead on this issue. The possibility – one that everyone dreads – of another variant of Covid-19 that causes yet another infection surge is also a reason for caution. Biden has been burned before on setting timelines on a virus that defies the political calendar.
But local officials are facing the sharp end of public exhaustion with the pandemic. Murphy, for instance, only just squeaked to a second term last year in a staunchly Democratic state after a campaign that had been dominated by controversy over masking and other Covid-19 measures. Democrats nationwide are desperate for the pandemic to be history when voters, who remember Biden’s promise to end it, go to the polls in midterm elections in November.
The new masking tension follows weeks of politicized battles over the issue. Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who was elected in Virginia last fall, has been locked in court battles with parents and school districts after issuing an executive order making masking optional in schools. GOP governors like Greg Abbott in Texas and Ron DeSantis in Florida, who may have presidential ambitions, battled teachers unions on issues like masking and paint themselves as warriors for parental choice.
And the masking minefield remains treacherous for political hopefuls. Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, for instance, last week quote-tweeted a photo of herself and masked schoolchildren. The Democrat was not wearing a mask herself and the tweets were later deleted, causing an intense political backlash. Her campaign said she had removed her mask so the children could hear her speak. But her potential Republican opponents quickly accused her of hypocrisy, in charges sure to reverberate throughout the campaign until the election in November.
Perhaps it’s too early to call time on the masking wars after all.