The times, they are a-changing: CDC set to loosen indoor mask guidance next week; Update: Not yet?

Greg Nash/Pool via AP

“The White House has been eager for the CDC to provide an update on its indoor mask recommendation,” NBC reports, with extreme understatement. Team Biden vowed during the campaign that they’d never interfere with the federal science bureaucracy for political reasons but it’s plain as day that Democrats are desperate for the CDC to make a move on masking. There’s probably no other authority, including Biden himself, that can move Democratic opinion off of its stubborn insistence on mask mandates:

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So long as their base is reluctant to ease restrictions, Democratic politicians have to tread lightly. Case in point, L.A. public schools are only now getting around to relaxing their outdoor mask mandate for students. The indoor one will remain in effect:

Local Dem officials and rank-and-file Democratic voters pride themselves on being committed to “the science,” with “the science” in this case meaning “maximum restrictions even when the dynamics of COVID don’t warrant them.” No politician will be able to move them off that position. The only way to convince them that “the science” no longer requires indoor mask mandates in all circumstances is for a top science official like Fauci or Rochelle Walensky to come down from the mountain with the tablets saying so. And until they’re convinced, Democratic pols will be stuck having to appease them by keeping some mandates in place — at great peril to the party’s midterm chances.

According to NBC, the tablets will be presented to the people next week:

Nothing has been finalized yet, but the CDC is considering a new benchmark for whether masks are needed, basing it on the level of severe disease and hospitalizations in a given community, two people familiar with the situation said.

The White House has been eager for the CDC to provide an update on its indoor mask recommendation, although it wants the agency to get it right and it doesn’t want to appear as though it is putting political pressure on the agency, said the two people familiar with the plans, who weren’t authorized to speak publicly…

Senior administration officials have asked Walensky to provide an update on masks before President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address on March 1, one of the people said.

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“Asking” the head of the CDC to “provide an update” on masking prior to an event as thoroughly political as the SOTU does sound like the White House putting political pressure on a health agency, no?

Even so, the shift from tying masking to cases and transmission rates instead of to hospitalization rates is overdue. Probably 90+ percent of the public has immunity of some sort by now and the less virulent Omicron strain has driven more dangerous variants to near-extinction. The supply of Pfizer’s miracle pill is also expanding, providing at-home treatment options for people with COVID. If severe cases are destined to be less common going forward, leaving hospitals able to cope with a local surge, what’s the argument for mandating masks? Let those who wish to avoid a “mild” infection mask up voluntarily with an N95.

As I say, though, having elected officials make that point won’t move some Democrats. They want to hear it from an expert. D.C.’s hypercautious mayor, Muriel Bowser, just dropped the city’s requirement of proof of vaccination to enter certain businesses, something one might think would cause Washingtonians to rejoice. But a poll conducted by WaPo found 74 percent of the heavily liberal city’s residents still support the vaccine passport law, with some business owners claiming they’ll continue to demand proof of vaccination from all patrons. That’s silly at a moment when Omicron, an immune-escape variant, is the only strain circulating nationally and D.C. hospitals are under no strain locally. But being a Democrat in 2022 means backing “the science” in the form of maximum precautions irrespective of the underlying logic, unless and until some avatar of science like the CDC tells you otherwise.

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And maybe not even then. We’ll know soon, after Walensky’s announcement next week, just how receptive Democratic opinion is to a major change in guidance by the CDC. The “maximum safety” ethos may leave liberals hostile to relaxing restrictions even after science bureaucrats have blessed the practice.

I’ll leave you with this notable comment yesterday from the most influential scientist in the U.S. Conservatives are scoffing at him, justifiably, for dismissing the idea that there’s politics at work in the recent anti-mandate trend among Democratic governors. But consider the alternative: What if he acknowledged that politics are involved? Pro-mandate Democratic voters would point to that as proof that “the science” still argues in favor of mandates, no matter how much COVID recedes. Fauci’s only audience anymore is Democrats and his message here will be useful in getting them to lower their guard: No, really, you can unmask. It’s not politics. “The science” says so!

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Update: I can’t tell if this clip from this morning’s White House briefing is confirmation of NBC’s report or a denial.

Transmission’s still too high to justify relaxing masking, Walensky says, which sounds like a denial. But updated guidance is coming soon and severe illness will weigh more heavily in that guidance, which is just what NBC reported. Hmmm.

Go figure that a CDC communique might be opaque and confusing.

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David Strom 4:30 PM | May 28, 2024
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