Analysis: Democratic governors outperform the White House by masking pullbacks

This could be a case of twice bitten, thrice shy, because President Joe Biden ran for office on a promise to “turn off” the virus and declared partial independence from him on July 4 last year, and both times he paid one political price for raising expectations too high, too fast.

But now he’s facing pressure to take a big step toward returning to normality as the Omicron wave ebbs as quickly as it came and local officials are taking matters into their own hands. On Monday alone, three Democratic governors — in New Jersey, Delaware and Connecticut — and the Oregon Health Department set timetables to end masking mandates in classrooms, in the latest twist in a public health saga that sent a political tsunami through schools. Her moves increased pressure on other blue states like New York to follow her lead. Many Republican-run states have no such mandates, and populist governors have touted opposition to public health guidelines to boost their political careers.

Everything about the highly infectious Omicron variant that struck late last year was unfolding at accelerated pace. It quickly swamped schools, crunched trips and left supermarket shelves empty. But as infection curves drop vertically in some states, the ever-changing politics of the pandemic are shifting once again.

The rapidly evolving situation sparks another controversy over whether the desperation to let history see the virus is being driven by science or politics. Just last week, a group of governors meeting the president at the White House said it was time to “move away” from the pandemic, according to Arkansas GOP Governor Asa Hutchinson.

White House: No policy changes

The new moves to mask from Democratic-controlled states appeared to outstrip messages from the White House — not for the first time.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki insisted Monday that there had been no changes to guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommending masking in schools or forthcoming new blueprints for governors, though they said it’s up to local school districts to create their own decisions.

Recalling Biden’s comments less than two weeks ago, Psaki said, “We certainly don’t see this moment as the new normal now… but we want to get to a point… where Covid isn’t disrupting our daily lives.” “

However, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said Monday it was time to set a date to move away from the arrangement of the masks, which have become a symbol of the childhoods of young students lost to the pandemic are.

“Our case numbers, hospitalizations, and spot positivity rate are all dropping like a rock,” the Democratic governor said on CNN’s “The Lead with Jake Tapper.” He added that advances in children’s immunizations also mean it’s time to ease restrictions in schools. Murphy’s move, which will no longer require children and adults to wear masks at school, will take effect in a month. Until then, Covid-19 cases in the state are expected to continue to decline.

“This isn’t so much a declaration of victory as it is an acknowledgment that we can live responsibly with this cause,” Murphy said in his announcement.

Also on Monday, Delaware Gov. John Carney announced that a universal indoor mask mandate will end on Friday and the school mask mandate will expire on March 31. And fellow Democrat Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont recommended ending the statewide mask mandate in schools and children’s care centers on February 28. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who survived efforts to remove him from office driven largely by his Covid restrictions, announced Monday that the Golden State would lift its statewide mandate for inner masks for vaccinated people next week.

Mask movements split medical opinion

Some health professionals support such moves, arguing that while the threat of Covid-19 is not over, a variant that is mostly non-fatal for those who are fully vaccinated, the rapidly falling number of new cases therefore makes it reasonable to act now.

dr Leana Wen, a medical analyst at CNN, argued that the CDC needs to change its guidance, noting that it doesn’t have to happen overnight. “But we need to hear your leadership here. The CDC has already lost a lot of trust and credibility. This is their time to rebuild and lift restrictions as quickly as they were put in place,” added Wen, an emergency physician and professor of public health policy and management at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health.

“It gives us an opportunity to actually lift one of these controversial restrictions,” said Dr. Carlos del Rio, executive associate dean of Emory University School of Medicine, on CNN’s “Newsroom,” arguing that attention should be turned to things like improving ventilation in schools.

The latest iteration of the state’s masking policy came as new infections from Covid-19 swept through most states and optimism mounted that the country is closer than ever to liberation when the pandemic hits the two-year mark.

dr Richard Besser, a former acting director of the CDC, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in The Situation Room on Monday that governors would make decisions based on slowing Covid-19 infections.

“The trends we are seeing are very encouraging. If they stop, then there’s light at the end of the tunnel for a lot of kids in schools,” said Besser, a pediatrician, who urged officials to explain that the changes are based on an improvement in prospects — if they have to change course .

“If things reverse and go the other way, maybe we’ll go back to saying we need to put masks back on children,” said Besser, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

But not all health professionals believe now is the time to ditch basic measures like masking in schools, warning that while infections are declining, they remain high in some areas. And still more than 2,500 Americans die from Covid every day – a reality much of the country seems to have gone numb to.

dr Jonathan Reiner, a CNN medical analyst, said Monday that while the number of cases in New Jersey was 90% lower than at the Omicron peak, the numbers were still 15 times higher than last summer.

“We are moving 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 12-17 are fully vaccinated and only 22% of children 5-11 are fully vaccinated. The combination of still a lot of viruses in the community and not many vaccinated children says to me that we have to wait a bit longer until there are fewer viruses in the community.”

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

Politics and science contradict each other again

Such concerns may explain why the White House is more reluctant than some state Democrats to take the lead on this issue. The possibility – one everyone fears – of another variant of Covid-19 causing another flare-up of infections is also a reason for caution. Biden has been burned before for setting schedules for a virus that defies the political calendar.

But local officials are facing the sharp end of public exhaustion with the pandemic. Murphy, for example, just achieved a second term last year in a staunchly Democratic state after a campaign that had been dominated by controversy over masking and other Covid-19 measures. Democrats across the country are desperate for the pandemic to be history when voters remembering Biden’s promise to end it go 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 embroiled in court battles with parents and school districts after he issued an executive order making masking in schools optional. GOP governors like Greg Abbott in Texas and Ron DeSantis in Florida, who may have presidential aspirations, fought with teachers’ unions over issues such as masking and self-portrayal as warriors for parental choice.
And the masking minefield remains treacherous for political hopefuls. Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, for example, last week cited a photo of herself with masked schoolchildren. The Democrat did not wear a mask herself and the tweets were later deleted, prompting a fierce 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, with accusations sure to reverberate throughout the campaign leading up to the November election.

Maybe it’s still too early to put an end to the masking wars.

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