A sign advertising protective face masks is taped in the window of a coronavirus pop-up store in Washington, D.C., on March 6, 2020. The novel coronavirus causes the COVID-19 disease and has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. Photo by Samuel Corum | Getty Images
WASHINGTON — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is preparing guidance for governors about when to relax masking and other measures meant to slow the spread of COVID-19, but doesn’t want to release those instructions just yet.
Director Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday that it’s too soon to begin rolling back masking and other public health guidance meant to reduce transmission of the virus, given the ongoing high levels of infection and deaths fueled by the omicron variant.
“Our hospitalizations are still high, our death rates are still high. So, as we work toward that, and as we are encouraged by the current trends, we are not there yet,” she said at a White House COVID-19 briefing.
Governors from both blue and red states throughout the country do not appear ready to wait for those instructions.
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Governors in states that still have mask requirements for indoor settings have already begun letting them expire or have announced sunset dates in the coming weeks.
While many GOP-led states already have ended masking or other rules, states with Democratic governors are just now beginning to make the shift.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, on Wednesday announced she would let the state’s mask mandate expire Thursday, though she would keep a requirement in place for schools.
Hochul’s reasoning for letting the requirement expire seemed contrary to what Walensky said during the White House briefing, a disconnect that Americans have experienced frequently throughout the two-year pandemic.
“Given the declining cases, given the declining hospitalizations, that is why we feel comfortable to lift this, in effect tomorrow,” Hochul said.
When Walensky was asked whether residents should listen to the CDC or their governors amid the patchwork of suggestions and mandates, she said the Biden administration has always said decisions have to be made at the local level.
State leaders, she said, are likely looking at local case counts, how hospitals in their region are doing and their vaccination rate before making decisions about mask mandates.
“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,” she said.
Walensky also pointed to the states that are making phased approaches to removing their covid mitigation measures.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, announced earlier this week the state’s mask mandate for students and teachers would expire on March 7, giving the state another month to monitor cases and avoid a boomerang effect.
“Every time you think you’ve got this thing figured out, it humbles you. But we’re confident that four weeks from now we will be able to be at that point,” he said.
And the Oregon Health Authority announced a similar relaxation this week for its schools, saying that district leaders would be able to decide what to do on masking after March 31.
Walensky said in determining the CDC’s public health recommendations, she and others have to take into account that the guidance will apply to places like New York City and rural Montana, and that it will impact healthy people as well as those with disabilities.
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