As the status of Covid-19 in the US has changed quickly in the last few weeks with the rise of the highly contagious Delta variant, the messages coming from public health officials inside the Biden administration have sometimes been muddled or contradictory.
Those changing messages have led to questions about whether public health officials are all on the same page and caused confusion in a public that was hoping to move on from the pandemic.
Sometimes the pivot has meant reversing course, such as re-instituting guidance on wearing masks indoors among both the vaccinated and unvaccinated despite months of the administration telling Americans that they could take off their masks if they got their shots.
It’s also meant embracing a new, harsher tone toward the unvaccinated, who had been encouraged to get their shots for months, as Biden and his administration began to openly blame the unvaccinated for the spike in cases. In one significant step, the President announced he would require federal employees get vaccinated or face work travel restrictions and frequent Covid-19 testing. That change came after months of the administration batting away suggestions of vaccine mandates for any American.
It has also meant encouraging private sector businesses and local governments to take action when the federal government cannot. The administration is encouraging other cities, localities and businesses to potentially follow in New York City’s footsteps and adopt a vaccine passport program even though it said previously that it will not initiate such programs.
A senior administration official stressed that changes in public health guidance are responsive to evolving science and data as the increasingly transmissible Delta variant has contributed to the surge of cases across the country.
A federal Covid-19 vaccine mandate?
The President and the head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention both suggested in recent days that a federal vaccine mandate may have been under consideration, despite repeated statements from Biden administration officials indicating that wasn’t a move within the federal government’s purview.
Last Thursday at the White House, Biden told reporters that “it’s still an open question whether the federal government can mandate the whole country” to get a Covid-19 vaccine, but he would like to see private entities make the choice to mandate their employees get their shots.
The following day, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky was asked on Fox News whether the vaccine would be mandated on a federal level.
“That’s something that I think the administration is looking into. It’s something that I think we are looking to see approval of from the vaccine,” Walensky responded. “Overall, I think in general, I am all for more vaccination. But I have nothing further to say on that except that we’re looking into those policies.”
Walensky and the White House said later that a federal vaccination mandate is not under consideration.
“To clarify: There will be no nationwide mandate. I was referring to mandates by private institutions and portions of the federal government. There will be no federal mandate,” Walensky tweeted in an attempt to clean up her Fox News interview.
Who should wear a mask?
The question of masking has also plagued the administration in recent weeks as cases escalated.
For months, the line from federal officials was that being vaccinated meant not having to wear a face covering in public. Echoing that stance, Walensky said on July 22 that fully vaccinated people could make an individual choice about whether to wear masks.
“You have the opportunity to make the personal choice to add extra layers of protection if you so choose,” she said in a White House Covid-19 response team briefing.
But just days later, she appeared to do a complete about-face.
“In areas with substantial and high transmission, CDC recommends fully vaccinated people wear masks in public, indoor settings to help prevent the spread of the Delta variant, and protect others,” Walensky announced at a briefing on July 27.
The CDC also said everyone should wear masks in school – students, teachers, staff and visitors. Earlier guidance was that everyone 2 years of age and older who is not vaccinated should wear masks.
Walensky said new data had convinced her the Delta variant was “behaving uniquely” and new evidence indicated that fully vaccinated people who have breakthrough infections involving Delta may be as likely to transmit the virus to others as unvaccinated people.
However, the data that led to the change in guidance wasn’t revealed publicly by the CDC for days, spurring speculation and confusion around the announcement.
Masking at home among young children?
The head of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis Collins, walked back comments he made suggesting some parents may want to wear masks when they’re at home with their unvaccinated children.
Collins told CNN’s John Berman on “New Day” this week that parents could consider wearing masks at home to protect children who are too young to get vaccinated against Covid-19.
“If you are parents who have small children under 12 at home, they are susceptible for getting infected,” Collins said. “And if the parents are out and about and might themselves be carrying the virus, you don’t want to pass that along. So many parents with that recommendation, consider wearing masks for families at home to reduce this risk as long as the kids are unvaccinated, especially if you’re in a community that has very high transmission at the present time.”
Collins also later clarified his comments, tweeting that he “garbled” the message.
“Vaccinated parents who live in communities with high COVID transmission rates should mask when out in public indoor settings to minimize risks to their unvaccinated kids. No need to mask at home,” he tweeted.
And Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser and the director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, reiterated to CNN’s Erin Burnett Tuesday that Collins misspoke.
“It’s very simple, Erin. He misspoke. He’s a person of high integrity, and he came out with a tweet and said, ‘I apologize. I misspoke. I got it wrong,’ ” Fauci said.
He added, “Parents do not need to wear masks in their own home. That is the right answer. Dr. Collins said he misspoke and I give him great credit for admitting it very, very quickly of saying that he misspoke. So, parents should not be confused. You don’t need to wear masks in your own home.”
Despite the confusion, there is one message that all health officials have remained crystal clear on: Americans need to get vaccinated, and do so quickly to best protect yourself and others.
CNN’s Morgan Stoviak, Liz Stark and Lauren Mascarenhas contributed to this report.