CDC: Mask policy driven by ‘evolving science,’ not Joe Biden

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention flipped the script on masks based on plummeting cases and “evolving science” about the COVID-19 vaccines, its director said Sunday, attempting to quell suspicion that the administration whisked out the guidance to give President Biden a win in a rough week.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky pointed to improving pandemic metrics and new studies that show the vaccines thwart transmission and combat variants of the coronavirus.

“Really, just in the last two weeks, we’ve had a lot of evolving science,” Dr. Walensky told NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “This was not permission to shed masks for everybody everywhere. This was really science-driven, individual assessment of your risk.”

The guidance released Thursday said fully vaccinated people could go most places safely, indoors or outdoors, without a mask. It created immediate confusion at the state and local levels as officials adjusted to federal advice that came without warning and wasn’t pegged to future metrics or Mr. Biden’s July Fourth target for normalcy.

The White House said it learned about the change Wednesday night, a day after members of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions grilled Dr. Walensky on the CDC’s messaging on masks.

Many aren’t convinced the administration took a hands-off approach.

Rep. Jim Jordan, Ohio Republican, pointed to a disappointing jobs report, violence in Israel and lines at the gas pump in the lead-up to the change.

“And suddenly, President Biden says he might let you take your mask off,” Mr. Jordan tweeted. “How convenient.”

Face masks have been a part of American life for over a year. The CDC told people in April 2020 to wear masks in public once it realized that many carriers of the coronavirus were asymptomatic and probably wouldn’t know they had been infected.

The guidance became a political lightning rod. Opponents tended to be conservatives who saw mask rules as government overreach, and proponents tended to be liberals who feared the virus itself or wanted to cover up to show others that they were taking the pandemic seriously.

The CDC had been gradually updating its guidance on mask-wearing for people who are “fully vaccinated,” or 14 days beyond their last required dose of the two-dose vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna or the one-shot Johnson & Johnson version.

The agency previously said a maskless dinner party among fully vaccinated people is fine and that immunized people didn’t need to wear masks outdoors except in big crowds.

Yet its Thursday guidance seemed to burst from the blue and was far more sweeping than the familiar step-by-step approach, even if the CDC said masks should still be worn in hospitals, in prisons, in homeless shelters and on public transportation.

The Washington Post reported that Dr. Walensky signed off on the changes Monday only to spend the next morning fending off tough questions about cautious mask policies from Republican senators Susan M. Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and others, while scientists at her agency pored over the data one more time and prepped the guidance for release.

Biden adviser Andy Slavitt said the CDC informed the White House at 9 p.m. Wednesday.

“If they wanted to do this politically conveniently, wouldn’t she have done this before the hearing so she didn’t have to take the tough questions, rather than after?” Mr. Slavitt told Fox News on Friday. “She’s not running a popularity contest. And the CDC always is going to be criticized as either being too fast or too slow — usually at the same time, by the way. They’re getting it from both sides today. They got it from both sides before they made this change.”

The timing was still conspicuous because it allowed Mr. Biden to take a victory lap in the White House Rose Garden on the nation’s emergence from the pandemic hours after he had to assure Americans that the Colonial Pipeline would deliver much-needed gasoline by the weekend. He also was navigating a volley of airstrikes between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group in the Gaza Strip, that threatens to send the Middle East into renewed chaos.

“Why today? The science hasn’t changed,” Sen. Marsha Blackburn, Tennessee Republican, said in a Twitter post.

Adm. Brett Giroir, who oversees the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and led testing efforts during the Trump administration, said he couldn’t speak to the timing with inside knowledge but he did not see anything new about the vaccines and virus that wasn’t known a month ago.

“I think somebody just had to have the political will and say, ‘This is the right thing to do,’” Adm. Giroir told Fox News on Friday.

Dr. Walenksy insisted Sunday that the decision was based on emerging science within the past few weeks. She pointed to data her agency compiled last week and released Friday that found the Pfizer and Moderna shots are 94% effective in health care workers and recent papers in the New England Journal of Medicine said the vaccines worked against known variants.

“We were taking all of that science together, really actively during that time on Tuesday that I was in Congress, to convey what we needed to say, how we needed to say it with all of our subject matter experts. We were actively doing that last week,” Dr. Walensky told NBC.

She urged businesses to give employees time off to get vaccinated and said children younger than 12 should still wear masks. She also said the CDC will update its guidance for schools before the next school year kicks off this fall.

Governors and local officials grumbled that the guidance came as a sudden development with no heads-up, forcing them to make tough decisions on local policy. It’s hard to tell who is not vaccinated — vaccine IDs and “passports” are controversial — and it will be tough to impose strict rules if the CDC says vaccinated people are safe without masks.

Dr. Walensky said the guidance had to change at some point.

“It’s not a spectrum. It’s a switch,” she said. “We have to pick the time and the day that this guidance is going to change, that the new guidance is going to appear on the website.”

Mr. Slavitt, meanwhile, said it is not the CDC’s job to be popular. “They try to follow the science,” he said. “Our job at the White House is just to let them follow the science and take what comes and try to explain it as best we can to the American public.

“They found evidence that tells them you don’t need to wear a mask if you’re vaccinated,” he said.

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