By Kate Sullivan, CNN
The White House will keep its mask mandate in place on its grounds even as Washington, DC, lifts its indoor mask requirement starting Monday, a contrast that highlights the uneven messaging many Americans are receiving on Covid-19.
The nation’s capital remains an area with “substantial” community transmission, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and is currently at a rate of about 90 new weekly cases per 100,000 residents. That’s led the White House to keep its strict masking rules in place even as the district around it starts to relax its own rules.
“The White House follows CDC guidance, which recommends masking in areas of high or substantial transmission,” Kevin Munoz, White House assistant press secretary, told CNN.
But DC Mayor Muriel Bowser is bucking the CDC recommendations and announced last week the district would be relaxing its requirements, pointing to low hospitalization rates as a result of vaccinations. The reaction to this announcement was mixed, and some voiced concern about what it meant for the city’s most vulnerable residents.
The differing guidelines within the nation’s capital reflect just how much mask requirements vary from place to place, and how many Americans are currently navigating a patchwork of mitigation efforts. It’s a messaging problem the Biden administration has been fighting ever since the spring, when public health officials began to relax their recommendations to stop the spread of Covid-19 as cases dropped and vaccinations increased.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said this week that more than 85% of counties in the US have substantial or high transmission. She noted the CDC recommends jurisdictions have moderate or low community transmission for several weeks before rolling back mask requirements.
Currently six states have statewide mask mandates: Hawaii, Illinois, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington, according to Hemi Tewarson, the executive director of the National Academy for State Health Policy. At one point earlier on in the pandemic, 30 states had similar mandates.
Beyond the White House, an administration official tells CNN the mask policy in a federal building outside of Washington will be dependent on the level of transmission in the area where that building is situated.
The President has long promised his administration will follow the lead of health and medical experts, making it no surprise the White House and the rest of the federal government are sticking with the CDC guidance. Biden came into office vowing to restore the CDC’s independence, and has stressed there would be no interference on such issues by the White House.
But the messaging from the CDC has sometimes caused confusion among Americans looking for answers on how to get through the pandemic. Most recently, there has been deep frustration inside the administration over the complicated messaging surrounding Covid-19 vaccination booster shots, with several officials telling CNN the restrictions on who should get one and when have only spurred confusion when it was clear immunity wanes for all age groups.
The US Food and Drug Administration on Friday authorized boosters of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna Covid-19 vaccines for all adults, which offers the Biden administration a fresh chance at simplifying that particular messaging. The CDC quickly followed suit, recommending that people 18 and older get boosters.
Back in May, the country appeared to reach a turning point when the CDC said people who were fully vaccinated against Covid-19 didn’t need to wear masks or practice social distancing indoors or outdoors, except under certain circumstances. Shortly after the guidance came out, the White House emailed staffers and said they did not need to wear a mask on the grounds if they are vaccinated.
Biden said at the time it was a “great day for America” and a “great milestone” in the country’s response to the pandemic. He credited the national Covid-19 vaccination program for that development.
But as Delta variant cases spiked across the country in areas with low vaccination rates, the CDC changed its recommendations in July and urged people in certain areas of the country to resume wearing masks indoors in public areas. The White House and other federal buildings followed suit.
After initially resisting imposing any kind of vaccine requirements and instead simply encouraging all Americans to get vaccinated against Covid-19, the White House has now taken a tougher stance.
Biden has imposed stringent new vaccine rules on federal workers, large employers and health care staff. The new requirements could apply to as many as 100 million Americans, or close to two-thirds of the American workforce.
As the pandemic dragged on and tens of millions of Americans still refused to get vaccinated, which fueled the spread of the virus and the Delta variant, the President hardened his tone towards unvaccinated Americans.
“We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin, and your refusal has cost all of us,” Biden said in September while announcing the new vaccine requirements.
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