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In leaked audio, CDC director tells lawmakers there will be no changes to school mask guidance

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CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told lawmakers there are no plans to change the federal guidelines requiring students to wear masks in schools, according to a report.

"The CDC provides guidance," Walensky said during a briefing to the House Energy and Commerce committee. "Our guidance currently is that masking should happen in all schools right now."

Leaked audio from the closed-door meeting on Tuesday was reported by Reason. Walensky, White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services assistant secretary for preparedness and response, Dawn O'Connell, spoke to lawmakers about federal COVID-19 guidelines, gave updates on vaccines, and answered questions about the pandemic.

According to Reason, lawmakers from both parties criticized the CDC's mask guidance, and Walensky was challenged to explain why federal guidelines appear to be out of step with the latest science.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), the ranking Republican on the committee, observed that a major study from Arizona used by the CDC to support school mask mandates is seriously flawed and pressed Walensky to change the federal guidance to be more in line with science and with the international community.

"What we see in the U.S. is an outlier as it relates to the mask mandate for our children to go to school," McMorris Rodgers reportedly said. "[The World Health Organization and UNICEF] have both recommended against masking for kids under the age of 5 because it's going to do more harm than good. For children ages 6 to 11, they think that we should be considering other factors like learning and social development. My question today, my one question, is Dr. Walensky, will you commit to update your guidance by Friday to allow children in person without the burden of masks?"

Walensky did not commit to changing the CDC's guidance by Friday, even though she acknowledged that the Arizona study has "limitations," Reason reported.

"They all have limitations, and that's important to recognize because we are not randomizing schools," she told McMorris Rodgers. "We have to control for whether there are windows, ventilation, and other activities happening outside of these schools. So all of these studies have limitations. But they are for the most part uniformly pointing to that when there's a lot of disease out there, the masks are preventing that disease and preventing that transmission and because of that we are able to keep our schools open."

Another lawmaker, Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Ala.), demanded that Walensky explain how the school masking guidance is justified.

"Explain why we need to keep allowing school districts to impose a mask mandate on kids," he asked.

Responding, Walensky defended the agency's current guidance and noted that schools are free to disregard the CDC's recommendations, if they so choose.

"I will also say that guidance is just guidance, and all of these decisions, we've continued to say, have to be made at the local level," she reportedly said. "As cases come down dramatically, we have deferred our guidance to the local jurisdictions."

"That's not acceptable," Palmer told her. His frustration is understandable, given that school districts across the nation refer to the CDC's guidelines to justify masking requirements, and in states with statewide mask mandates for schools, those mandates also rely on the CDC's recommendations.

Walensky also faced tough questions from Democrats. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) highlighted the discrepancy between the CDC's masking guidelines and the real-life behavior of people in America, even in progressive areas like the San Francisco Bay Area that Eshoo represents.

"You hear the word confusion over and over again," Eshoo said. "But here's another one for you: masking. You know where I live in the Bay Area, the peninsula in the heart of Silicon Valley? Schools, cities, towns, counties: you're saying one thing, and they're doing something else. And this is a highly educated area, too. I trust our public health officials here. So my first question and my second point to you, Dr. Walensky, why do we have to be on two different tracks? Isn't there some kind of public health consensus about this?"

According to Reason, Walensky attempted to reply with national statistics about there being 170,000 cases per day and 2,200 deaths per day on average, but Eshoo cut her off.

"When you use the national figures, that's not a snapshot of where we are, so can you take that into consideration as you're giving me an answer?" Eshoo said.

"Absolutely," Walensky said. "We know that all of these decisions have to be made at the jurisdictional level. So not only do we report the national data, but we have to report them at the jurisdictional level, because we know that we ask the jurisdictions to look at their local context, to look at their local cases, to look at how their hospitals are doing, to look at their local death rates. And that is exactly what I think is happening across the country in a phased way. Many different policies are rolling out. Some are saying they're removing masks. Now some are saying they're removing masks at the end of the month. Some say we're removing masks at the end of the month, but not yet for schools. And so this is really happening at the jurisdictional level. And what we're recommending is that given right now, where we are for cases, that the masks should still stay on."

Her answer did not satisfy Eshoo, who warned that the CDC is damaging its credibility by excusing some states and local jurisdictions for easing mask mandates without changing its national guidance for mask-wearing.

During public remarks Wednesday, Walensky said the CDC is reviewing its mask guidance with an eye toward giving people a "break from things like mask-wearing," but she reiterated that coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, as counted by the CDC, are still too high and that for now, the guidance will remain unchanged.

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