With even Democrat-led states moving to roll back mask mandates, the White House said Wednesday it is beginning to prepare for a less-restrictive phase of the national COVID response amid growing impatience to ease up and turn toward post-pandemic normalcy.
White House COVID-19 coordinator Jeff Zients said officials have started consultations with state and local leaders and public health officials “on steps we should be taking to keep the country moving forward.” His comments come as states have moved to ease restrictions and guide the nation back toward life unencumbered by the virus.
Governors and local school officials have been pressing for weeks for clearer guidelines for easing or ending restrictions, but federal officials have been slow to preview potential changes. That's led to a patchwork of local and state policies that differ widely from one place to the next.
“We are working on that guidance,” said Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky on Wednesday. “As we’ve been encouraged by the current trends, we are not there yet.”
Cases and hospitalizations from COVID-19 have dropped markedly since they peaked earlier this year amid the spread of the highly-transmissible omicron variant, and the vast majority of Americans are now protected against the virus by effective vaccines and boosters.
CDC guidance continues to recommend indoor mask wearing in places of “substantial or high transmission" of the virus, which as of Wednesday was all of the U.S. but 14 rural counties.
State and local leaders, nevertheless, have announced plans to ease virus restrictions in the coming weeks as omicron cases fall, citing the protections offered by vaccines as well as the increased availability of at-home testing kits and therapeutics for those who do catch the virus. Many of the restrictions eased last year, only to be reinstated as omicron swept the country.
Earlier this week, New Jersey, Connecticut and Delaware announced plans to lift statewide mask-requirements in schools. On Wednesday, state officials said Massachusetts will follow suit starting Feb. 28.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced Wednesday that the state will end a COVID-19 mandate requiring face coverings in most indoor public settings, but will keep masking rules in place in schools.
“Given the declining cases, given the declining hospitalizations, that is why we feel comfortable to lift this, in effect tomorrow,” Hochul said.
The state will still require masks in many places, including in health care facilities as well as schools.
Hochul has said she would like to see vaccination rates for children improve before she does away with the schools mandate, which has been in place since August.
Rhode Island's Democrat Gov. Dan McKee also planned to announce Wednesday that he will be lifting the state's ndoor mask mandate this weekend, and the school mask mandate next month.
Two other Democrat governors, Steve Sisolak of Nevada and J.B. Pritzker of Illinois, also were expected to take similar actions this week.
While the Biden administration has pushed back strongly against efforts by GOP governors to prohibit mask-wearing requirements, it is indicating that it will take a more flexible approach to jurisdictions that make their own choices.
Policies lifting mask requirements “are going to have to be made at the local level” depending on case rates, Walensky said.
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