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White House says changes to COVID-19 guidance, including masks, may come within weeks

The Biden administration signaled Wednesday that COVID-19 guidance could be relaxed in the coming weeks as businesses and state and local governments — from Walt Disney World to city leaders in the nation’s capital — increasingly rush to lift indoor mask rules ahead of the federal government.

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Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said her agency will look at hospitals, in particular, and their ability to juggle the virus and treatment for other conditions.

She said changes from her agency might coincide with state changes that do not take effect until the end of February or the start of March.

“We want to give people a break from things like mask-wearing when these metrics are better and then have the ability to reach for them again, should things worsen,” Dr. Walensky said at a White House COVID-19 briefing. “If and when we update our guidance, we will communicate that clearly and will be based on the data and the science.”

White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients said the administration is discussing updates with experts inside and outside the government and with business leaders, though he insisted new advice will be guided by science.

“We’ll have more to say on this in the coming weeks,” Mr. Zients said. “And while we’re not where we all want to be yet, we’re encouraged by the dramatic declines we’re seeing in cases and hospitalizations nationwide.”

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Cases are averaging 147,000 per day, a 40% decrease from the previous week, according to the CDC. Daily hospital admissions average 9,500 per day, a decrease of 28% from the prior week, and the daily average of deaths, 2,200, is a decrease of 9%.

Local officials are easing up on pandemic rules as the case and hospitalization counts dip below the worst of the delta wave last summer.

Still, infection numbers remain higher now than in earlier points in the pandemic, and vaccines for the youngest Americans remain a work in progress, prompting some to say the moves are premature.

The disconnect is forcing the Biden administration to preach caution even as it promises a brighter future.

“We’re moving toward a time when COVID isn’t a crisis, but it’s something we can protect against and treat. The president and our COVID team are actively planning for the future,” Mr. Zients said.

The White House campus is caught in the middle of the federal-local divide. 

Press secretary Jen Psaki told masked reporters in the briefing room the complex will wait for Dr. Walensky instead of basing its policies on the D.C. mayor’s decision to lift the indoor mask mandate at the end of the month.

“We’ll wait for the CDC,” Ms. Psaki said. “They’re continuing to review mask guidelines, and how different communities across the country should assess them. But we’ll wait for the CDC to make any changes here.”

The White House testing coordinator, Tom Inglesby, said the administration is reaching out to the testing industry to find out what it will take to scale up manufacturing and bring new testing technologies online. He said the idea is to avoid being caught flat-footed if another surge, like the omicron variant, sweeps the nation.

“We’re taking steps now to sustain and expand the domestic testing capacity in this country,” Dr. Inglesby said. “And we’ll be ready if we face a new variant or surge in the future.”

Dr. Walensky said changes on masking guidance from the CDC may “intersect” with state changes that do not take effect for a few weeks. However, some entities are making changes right away.

Walt Disney World in Florida and Disneyland in California said they will no longer require fully vaccinated visitors to wear masks as of Thursday.

Masks will still be required for transportation within the theme parks. Unvaccinated persons are required to wear masks in all indoor settings, though it was unclear if the parks will check vaccine cards at the gate.

The parks said masks should be made of two layers of breathable material and costume masks do not count.

The decision to relax mask rules for vaccinated persons comes after California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, eased statewide mask rules but left them in place in schools.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, has consistently opposed state mandates throughout the pandemic but Disney World has set its own rules.

Tyson Foods, a major meatpacking processor, also began to relax mask rules because of high vaccination rates, declining case counts and “extremely low” rates of serious illness.

The company said the removal of masks is dependent on local and state laws and U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations that require continued use in some settings.

Distribution centers, feed mills and some production facilities will be able to remove masks effective immediately, and the company is working on a process that would allow employees at facilities inspected by USDA to implement the new policy and remove masks if they choose to do so.

For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.

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