The White House has been meeting with outside health experts to plan a pandemic exit strategy and a transition to a “new normal,” but the behind-the-scenes effort is crashing into a very public reality: a string of blue-state governors have gotten ahead of President Biden by suddenly abandoning their mask mandates.
The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, said pointedly on Wednesday that while her agency is working on new guidance for the states, it is not yet time to lift mask mandates across the nation.
“We are working on that guidance; we are working on following the trends for the moment,” Dr. Walensky said at the briefing. But she cautioned: “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.”
In the meantime, Jeff Zients, President Biden’s coronavirus response coordinator, said the administration had been consulting experts, as well as governors, to talk about “steps we should be taking to keep the country moving forward.”
Asked about mask mandates at a Wednesday news conference, Jen Psaki, President Biden’s press secretary, said the president remained committed to listening to guidance from scientists.
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“Listen to data,” she said. “That doesn’t move at the speed of politics. It moves at the speed of data.”
But the slow deliberations, both within the C.D.C. and on Mr. Zients’s team, run the risk of making the White House look irrelevant as governors forge ahead on their own. On Wednesday, Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York announced she was dropping a statewide mask or vaccine mandate.
“The administration needs to read the room and see that nearly all elected leaders are moving on without them,” said Dr. Leana Wen, a former Baltimore health commissioner who has often been critical of the administration, adding, “No one is expecting the C.D.C. to say that everyone should go maskless right now. What they are looking for clear metrics on when restrictions can be lifted and when they may need to return.”
The internal debate comes as the latest coronavirus surge, fueled by the highly infectious Omicron variant, abates in much of the country. If that trajectory continues, as expected, Mr. Biden himself will have soon some tough decisions to make: Should he declare an end to the national emergency his predecessor, former President Donald J. Trump, declared in March 2020? Should he lift the mask mandate he imposed for travel on airplanes, trains and buses?
The decisions are complicated; it is difficult, experts say, to issue a one-size-fits-all prescription for a country as varied as the United States.
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The C.D.C.’s current masking recommendations, for instance, advise state and local officials to adopt indoor masking policies in areas of the country where transmission is high. A color-coded map on the agency’s website shows the entire country in red; 99 percent of all counties are in a high transmission zone, the agency said.
Dr. Celine Gounder, an infectious disease specialist who has been consulted by the White House but declined to talk about those discussions, suggested that the C.D.C. ought to consider new metrics, like vaccination levels or hospital capacity, when updating its masking guidance for the states.
“It’s a challenging situation, because of course people are really anxious to get back to some sense of normalcy,” Dr. Gounder said. “It’s highly variable across the country — how much transmission there is, what vaccination uptake has been — but the C.D.C. produces guidance for the entire country, so it makes sense for them to be cautious.”
The meetings with outside experts are aimed at drafting an updated pandemic playbook that will address, in part, how to relax mitigation measures like mask wearing, while planning for the possibility that another new variant can emerge. Mr. Zients referenced the sessions on Wednesday, but did not offer details except to say they were focused on “steps we should be taking to keep the country moving forward.”
Mr. Biden has already been signaling that he is looking past the pandemic. In remarks at a news conference in January, he said that the nation was “moving toward a time when Covid-19 won’t disrupt our daily life, when Covid-19 won’t be a crisis, but something to protect against.” But the president also said then that “we’re not there yet.”
Amelia Nierenberg contributed.