Analysis: Democratic governors outpace White House with masking setbacks

It may be a case of twice bitten, thrice shy, because President Joe Biden ran for office vowing to “shut down” the virus and declared partial independence from it on July 4 last year, and on both occasions paid a political price for raising expectations. too high, too fast.

But now he faces pressure to take a big step back to normalcy as the Omicron wave recedes as quickly as it came and local authorities take matters into their own hands. On Monday alone, three Democratic governors — from New Jersey, Delaware and Connecticut — and the Oregon Department of Public Health set deadlines to end classroom masking mandates, in the latest twist of a public health saga that sent a political tsunami through schools. Their moves have increased pressure on other blue states, like New York, to follow suit. Many Republican-led states have no such mandates, and populist governors have touted resistance to public health guidelines to boost their political careers.

Everything about the highly contagious variant of Omicron, which hit late last year, has been happening at an accelerated pace. It quickly flooded schools, crushed travel and left supermarket shelves empty. But with infection curves plunging vertically in some states, the ever-changing politics of the pandemic is transforming again.

The rapidly changing situation is sparking new controversy over whether the desperation to consign the virus to history is driven by science or politics. Just last week, a group of governors who met with the president at the White House told him it was time to “step away” from the pandemic, according to Arkansas GOP Governor Asa Hutchison.

White House: no change to guidelines

New masking measures from Democratic-controlled states appeared to overtake messages from the White House — not for the first time.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki insisted on Monday that there had been no changes to guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that recommends face coverings in schools or any impending new plans for governors, though she said it was up to local school districts to make their own decisions.

PSAKI recalled Biden’s comments less than two weeks ago, saying, “We certainly don’t see this moment now as the new normal…but we want to get to a point…where Covid doesn’t disrupt our daily lives.”

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, however, said on Monday it was time to set a date to move away from the mask requirement that has become a symbol of young students’ childhoods lost to the pandemic. .

“Our case counts, hospitalizations, spot positivity rate are all dropping like a rock,” the Democratic governor said on CNN’s “The Lead with Jake Tapper.” He added that progress in vaccinating children also meant that now was the time to ease restrictions in schools. Murphy’s decision, which will no longer require children and adults to wear masks at school, will go into effect in a month, by which time Covid-19 cases in the state are expected to drop further.

“It’s not so much a declaration of victory as an acknowledgment that we can live responsibly with this thing,” Murphy said during his announcement.

Also on Monday, Delaware Gov. John Carney announced that a universal indoor mask mandate will end on Friday and school mask mandates will expire on March 31. And fellow Democrat Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont has recommended ending the statewide mask mandate in schools and children. care centers on February 28. California Governor Gavin Newsom, who survived an effort to recall him from duty spurred in large part by his Covid restrictions, announced on Monday that the Golden State would lift its indoor mask mandate nationwide. Status for those vaccinated next week.

Mask movements divide medical opinion

Some medical professionals support such measures, arguing that even if the threat of Covid-19 has not passed, a variant that is generally not fatal for those who are fully vaccinated and the rapid fall in the number of new cases mean that it is reasonable to act now.

CNN medical analyst Dr. Leana Wen argued that the CDC needed to change its guidelines, noting that this should not be done overnight. “But we need to hear their leadership here. The CDC has already lost a lot of trust and credibility. This is their time to rebuild and remove the restrictions as quickly as they were put in place,” added Wen, a medical doctor. emergency doctor and health teacher. policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health.

“This gives us the opportunity to remove one of these restrictions that has been so controversial,” said Dr. Carlos del Rio, associate executive dean of Emory University School of Medicine, on the “Newsroom from CNN, saying the focus should be on things like improving ventilation in schools.

The latest iteration of the state’s masking policy has emerged as new Covid-19 infections plummet in most states and with growing optimism that, as the pandemic hits the two-year mark, the country is closer than ever to liberation.

Dr. Richard Besser, former acting CDC director, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on “The Situation Room” on Monday that governors are making decisions based on slowing Covid-19 infections.

“The trends we are seeing are very encouraging. If they continue, then there is light at the end of the tunnel for a lot of children in schools,” said Besser, a pediatrician, who called on officials to explain. that the changes are based on an improved outlook – in case they have to change course.

“If things change and go the other way, we could go back to saying we have to hand masks to children,” said Besser, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

But not all medical professionals believe the time is right to forego basic measures like mask-wearing in schools, warning that while infections are falling, they remain high in some areas. And more than 2,500 Americans still die every day from Covid – a reality that much of the country seems to have grown oblivious to.

Dr. Jonathan Reiner, a CNN medical analyst, said Monday that while New Jersey’s caseload was 90% lower than its Omicron peak, its numbers were still 15 times higher than they were. last summer.

“We’re headed in the right direction. But we’re not there yet,” Reiner, a professor of medicine at George Washington University, told Tapper.

“Only 55% of children between the ages of 12 and 17 are fully vaccinated and only 22% of children between the ages of 5 and 11 are fully vaccinated. So the combination of still a lot of virus in the community and not a lot of children being vaccinated, to me says we have to wait a little longer until there is less virus in the community.”

“I know everyone is impatient,” added Reiner. “I too want to drop the masks.”

Politics and science at odds again

Such concerns may explain why the White House is more reluctant than some state-level Democrats to take the lead on this issue. The possibility – which everyone fears – of another variant of Covid-19 causing yet another surge of infection is also cause for caution. Biden has already been burned for setting deadlines on a virus that defies the political calendar.

But local officials are facing an abrupt end to public exhaustion with the pandemic. Murphy, for example, just won a second term last year in a staunchly Democratic state after a campaign dominated by controversy over masking and other Covid-19 measures. The country’s Democrats are desperate to make the pandemic history when voters, reminiscent of Biden’s pledge to end it, head to the polls in November’s midterm elections.

The new masking tension follows weeks of politicized battles over the issue. Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who was elected in Virginia last fall, has been locked in court battles with parents and school districts after issuing an executive order making masking optional in schools. GOP governors like Greg Abbott in Texas and Ron DeSantis in Florida, who may have presidential ambitions, have fought teachers’ unions on issues such as masking and portray themselves as warriors for parental choice.
And the masking minefield remains treacherous for political hopes. Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, for example, last week tweeted a photo of herself and school children in masks. The Democrat was not wearing a mask herself and the tweets were later deleted, sparking an intense political backlash. Her campaign said she took off her mask so children could hear her speak. But her potential Republican opponents were quick to accuse her of hypocrisy, accusations that are sure to reverberate throughout the campaign leading up to the November election.

After all, it may be too early to end the masking wars.

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