WASHINGTON — Desperate to keep the coronavirus pandemic from spoiling a third consecutive summer, federal public health officials said Wednesday that masking should return in parts of the country with rapidly rising rates of infection. But although cases have been rising for several weeks, local and state leaders have thus far shown little willingness to reimpose mask mandates, even in Democratic municipalities and states.
“We urge local leaders to encourage the use of prevention strategies like masking and public indoor setting and increasing access to testing and to treatment,” the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, said at a briefing Wednesday of the White House pandemic response team.
She also said that given the efficacy of one-way masking and over-the-counter availability of testing, people did not need to wait for government action to take action of their own.
“In areas where community levels are high, everyone should be using prevention measures and wearing a mask in public indoor settings,” Walensky said, adding that in areas of moderate community spread, people should “consider” masking as well, based on individual risk factors like age and overall health.
She noted that 32% of Americans now live in a community with high or moderate coronavirus levels, an increase of 8% on the previous week. Hospitalizations are rising, too, though deaths remain at a relatively low level, a testament to the effectiveness of treatments like Paxlovid.
Shortly after the pandemic briefing concluded, the White House revealed that President Biden’s daughter, Ashley Biden, had tested positive for the coronavirus. She had been expected to travel with the first lady, Jill Biden to Latin America but, as millions of Americans have been forced to do over the last three years, was forced to cancel her plans and isolate instead.
“There’s a lot of infections across America,” Dr. Ashish Jha, who heads the pandemic response team, said on Wednesday. The nation is now recording some 94,000 new cases per day, he noted. By contrast, early April saw daily averages of as few as 25,000 cases.
“What is primarily driving that is these incredibly contagious subvariants,” Jha said, referring to strains like BA.2.12.1, which is highly transmissible but less virulent than earlier iterations of the virus.
“We have a pretty high degree of immunity in our population,” Jha acknowledged, either from vaccination or infection from an earlier variant. But vaccine immunity wanes, and immunity gained from prior infection does not guarantee that an individual will not be infected again.
A mainstay in the early days of the pandemic, White House coronavirus-related briefings had become increasingly rare this spring. But with cases in the Northeast rising thanks to the Omicron subvariant, the White House is eager to show that it is still taking the pandemic seriously, as it addresses other pressing issues, including the war in Ukraine, access to abortion and white supremacist violence.
Local and state leaders have been reluctant to reimpose mask mandates, in part because of political resistance from conservatives but also in recognition of the fact that getting people to follow guidance again that has been revoked could prove challenging.
In New York City, Mayor Eric Adams — who has pushed for the city to reopen — acknowledged that cases are rising again. He nevertheless resisted a step that some public health officials believe is necessary whenever such spikes occur.
“We’re not at the point of mandating masks,” he said Monday.