Biden administration health officials said Wednesday that it is still too early for states to ease school mask mandates as Democratic governors are finally catching up to their Republican peers and ending masking requirements.
At a press briefing Wednesday, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky was asked if her agency's masking guidance would be updated now that several states are acting to lift their mandates.
"We certainly understand the need and desire to be flexible and we want to ensure the public health guidance that we're providing meets the moment that we're in," Walensky said. She added that while falling COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are "encouraging," deaths and hospitalizations are still too high for the CDC to change its masking recommendations.
Walensky's comments come as Democratic governors in Connecticut, Delaware, and New Jersey, as well as Massachusetts' Republican governor, announced this week that statewide mask mandates would not be renewed when they expire, transferring decisions over mask requirements to local school districts. New York and California will also end their indoor mask mandates for public spaces, but have not announced whether separate school mask mandates will expire too.
The governors in these states say the mandates are no longer needed because of declining COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations after the Omicron surge, as well as the widespread availability of vaccines and booster shots.
Asked if CDC data backs up decisions to lift mask mandates, Walensky deferred to the governors' judgement.
"We've always said that these decisions are going to have to be made at the local level. And that policies at the local level will look at local cases, they'll look at how local hospitals are doing, they'll look at local vaccination rates," Walensky said.
She continued: "And they, as I understand it, in many of these decisions are using a phased approach. Not all of these decisions are being made to stop things tomorrow, but they're looking at a phased approach. So what I would say is, again, they have to be done at the local level, but I'm really encouraged that cases are continuing to drop dramatically. Hospitalizations are continuing to drop dramatically as people are making these decisions and as we are working on our guidance. So I'm encouraged to see those trends."
Still, the governors lifting mask mandates are doing so contrary to the CDC's official recommendations. Walensky said the agency is working to update its guidance eventually, but not right now.
"We are prepared, we are working on that guidance. We are working on following the trends for the moment," Walensky said. "Our hospitalizations are still high. Our death rates are still high. So as we work towards that, and as we are encouraged by the current trends, we are not there yet."
The CDC on Monday reported a 7-day average of 247,320 COVID-19 cases per day, a decrease of about 44% over the previous week. The agency also counted 13,066 new hospital admissions, a decrease of about 25% from last week. Deaths increased slightly, rising 3% with an average of 2,404 deaths reported per day.
The Biden administration has so far taken a much softer tone toward the Democratic governors ignoring CDC guidance on masks than it did toward Republican officials who did the same thing last year.
When Republican governors in Texas and Mississippi ended statewide mask mandates and reopened businesses in March 2021, White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci called the decision "inexplicable."
“I understand the need to want to get back to normality, but you’re only going to set yourself back if you just completely push aside the public health guidelines — particularly when we’re dealing with anywhere from 55 [thousand] to 70,000 infections per day in the United States,” Fauci said, quoting what were the most recent average daily case counts at the time. President Joe Biden piled on the Republican governors who lifted mask requirements too, calling their decisions "Neanderthal thinking."
Those numbers are now dwarfed by the over 247,000 average daily case counts caused by the Omicron variant, which is more contagious than other variants but causes less severe disease.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) said last year they were lifting mask mandates because of falling cases, hospitalizations, and the availability of vaccines. Both southern states without mask mandates and northern states with mask mandates went on to see surges in coronavirus cases caused by the Delta and Omicron variants.