WASHINGTON – As some states, notably Texas, begin to lift the masks’ mandates, the Biden administration is launching an informal but vigorous campaign to prevent others from following suit. Top doctors on the White House coronavirus task force argue that even with 2 million Americans vaccinated daily, thinking that the pandemic is almost over is the surest way to extend the duration of that pandemic.
“Wear a mask,” White House senior coronavirus adviser Andy Slavitt said during a briefing with reporters on Friday. “Not forever, but for now.”
That warning comes just days after Gov. Greg Abbott made Texas the largest state in the nation without a mask mandate. Abbott appears to have made that decision without consulting its own scientific advisers. “Texas has made some real progress, but it is too early to fully reopen and stop masking others,” one of those advisers told the Dallas Morning News.
Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves also canceled his state’s mask mandate this week.
More than a dozen other states are preparing to lift their own orders this spring, NBC News reported earlier this week, even though the country is recording about 60,000 new infections a day. Without launching the kind of large-scale culture war that former President Donald Trump enjoyed, the Biden administration has been rebuffing such moves.
Speaking at the White House on Wednesday, President Biden said Texas had made a “big mistake” adding that “the last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking” about masks.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has also spent much of the week urging Americans not to throw their face masks in the trash just yet.
“I know the idea of loosening up wearing a mask and getting back to everyday activities is appealing,” Walensky said Friday, “but we’re not there yet.”
He added that “we’ve seen this movie before,” a reference to the increased spread of the community when public health restrictions were lifted.
Biden has promised to have enough doses of the coronavirus vaccine to inoculate all Americans by the end of May. The longer the virus is allowed to spread until then, the more likely it is that a vaccine resistant strain will develop. At Friday’s briefing, Dr. Anthony Fauci displayed a graph showing that new cases have stalled in recent days, after a steep drop that followed the increase in winter holidays.
“A virus cannot mutate if it does not replicate, and it replicates in infected individuals,” Fauci explained in what he said was a basic virology mini-course. “A high baseline level of community spread of the virus favors the mutation and evolution of variants.” Those variants evolve, Fauci continued, according to the principle of natural selection, which necessarily means they could be more difficult to contain with current vaccines.
The point was clear: To prevent these new variants from emerging and potentially prolong the pandemic, people must continue to wear face masks, limiting the spread in the community.
Walensky said Friday that new variants of the coronavirus have been found in 48 states. In general, vaccines are still very effective against them, but there are concerns that vaccine-resistant strains could emerge.
Friday’s briefing was accompanied by a new CDC study that found that “mandates were associated with declines in the daily growth rates of COVID-19 cases and deaths.” That same study found that allowing eating inside restaurants caused the virus to proliferate at a higher rate.
The scientific justification for the masks has become increasingly clear throughout the pandemic. Almost a year ago, public health officials in the Trump administration advised people not to wear masks, in large part because they feared that a run on face coverings would leave hospital workers unprotected.
Surface cleaning and hand washing were also emphasized, and while both are strong public health measures, the researchers eventually confirmed that the virus is spread almost exclusively through airborne particles.
Opponents of face coverings have used the first conflicting medical claims, issued when data was sparse, to make their case against masks. Some of that opposition is gone, especially as Trump has disappeared from public view. But the opposition remains, especially as Americans of all political persuasions succumb to pandemic fatigue.
The Biden administration has tried to dispel that opposition without engaging in the kind of harsh back-and-forth that marked Trump’s handling of the pandemic, especially when he disagreed with Democratic governors. At the same time, the new administration is working against a tired public clearly eager to declare the battle against coronavirus over.
“There is a light at the end of this tunnel,” Walensky said Friday, “but we must be prepared for the fact that the road ahead may not be smooth.”
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