CDC urges people to mask where COVID strikes

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WASHINGTON — Desperate to prevent the coronavirus pandemic from ruining a third consecutive summer, federal public health officials said on Wednesday masks must be returned in parts of the country with rapidly rising infection rates. But while the number of cases has been rising for several weeks, local and state leaders have so far shown little willingness to re-impose mask mandates, even in democratic municipalities and states.

“We urge local leaders to encourage the use of prevention strategies such as masking in indoor public settings and increasing access to tests and treatments,” said the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, during a briefing from the White House Pandemic Response Team.

She also said that given the effectiveness of one-way masking and the over-the-counter tests, people don’t have to wait for government action to take action themselves.

dr.  Rochelle Walensky, wearing a surgical and black mask, looks at a microphone, a little rushed.

dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, during a Senate hearing in January. (Greg Nash/TUSEN via Getty Images)

“In areas where the community level is high, everyone should take preventive measures and wear a mask in indoor public settings,” Walensky said, adding that in areas with moderate community distribution, people should also “consider” masking based on individual risk factors such as age and overall health.

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She noted that 32% of Americans now live in a community with high or moderate coronavirus levels, an 8% increase from the previous week. Hospital admissions are also on the rise, although the number of deaths remains at relatively low levels, a testament to the effectiveness of treatments such as Paxlovid.

Shortly after the pandemic briefing ended, the White House revealed that President Biden’s daughter, Ashley, tested positive for the coronavirus. She was expected to travel to Latin America with First Lady Jill Biden, but, as millions of Americans have been forced to do over the past two years, she was forced to cancel her plans and isolate instead.

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“There are many infections all over America,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, head of the pandemic response team, Wednesday. The nation now records some 94,000 new cases a day, he noted. By contrast, early April saw daily averages of just 25,000 cases.

“What’s primarily driving this are these incredibly contagious subvariants,” Jha said, referring to strains like BA.2.12.1, which are highly transmissible but less virulent than previous iterations of the virus.

“We have a pretty high level of immunity in our population,” Jha acknowledged. But vaccine immunity wanes, and immunity gained from a previous infection does not guarantee that a person will not be re-infected.

Passengers wearing masks will pass a yellow sign that reads: Wear a face covering, face covering is mandatory at our airport and keep physical distance.

Passengers at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City on April 19. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

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 increasing thanks to the Omicron subvariant, the White House is eager to show that it is still taking the pandemic seriously as it tackles other pressing issues, including the war in Ukraine, access to abortion and white supremacist violence. .

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Local and state leaders have been reluctant to re-impose mask mandates, in part due to political opposition from conservatives, but also in recognition of the fact that getting people to follow the revoked guidelines again can be challenging.

In New York City, Mayor Eric Adams — who has pushed for the city to reopen — acknowledged that the number of cases is rising again. He nevertheless resisted a move that some public health officials say is necessary when such spikes occur.

“We are not on the verge of mandating masks,” he said on Monday.

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