The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The CDC’s mask guidance is a mess. Biden needs to clean it up.

President Biden speaks about updated guidance on mask mandates in the Rose Garden of the White House on Thursday. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Last Thursday’s abruptly announced guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has devolved into a giant mess. Governors and mayors were caught by surprise, leading to a flurry of rapid changes and a patchwork of disparate regulations across the country. Businesses found themselves scrambling without the tools they need to relax restrictions for the vaccinated while protecting the ­unvaccinated.

While many people happily shed their masks and celebrated the apparent end of the pandemic, others are concerned that with only 37 percent of the country fully vaccinated, this relaxation is premature and could lead to a resurgence of ­infections.

If such a head-scratching turn of events had occurred under former president Donald Trump, the administration surely would have been blamed for the lack of coordination and resulting widespread confusion. The Biden team has excelled on many aspects of the covid-19 response, but this was a major blunder that threatens to set back much of the progress made. President Biden needs to fix it, urgently.

Most important, Biden should own that it was a mistake to cede this level of responsibility to the CDC. After watching Trump repeatedly sideline the agency, seemingly for political reasons, the Biden administration understandably has wanted to elevate the CDC’s role. But there’s a big difference between listening to scientists and ceding policymaking to one scientific organization. Trump supporters might complain about a double standard, but intervening in this case wouldn’t be about politics; it would be for the public good.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

Biden should clarify what it is that the CDC does: It’s a scientific agency that excels at interpreting research and formulating evidence-based guidance. In this case, it was appropriate for the CDC to state that after reviewing all the data, it is confident that fully vaccinated people are at little risk for contracting the coronavirus and spreading it to others.

But that’s very different from announcing that vaccinated people can take off their masks because, without verification of vaccination, this would inevitably lead to the end of mask mandates. That’s not scientific guidance — that’s a major policy decision to shift the entire direction of the United States’ pandemic response. Arguably, this was the single biggest decision that the Biden administration has made on covid, yet senior administration officials learned about the CDC’s planned change only the night before, and the president himself didn’t find out about it until the morning of the announcement.

This was an astounding strategic and tactical mistake. It will have lasting repercussions unless the White House steps in to clean up the CDC’s mess. As a start, the administration should clarify that while vaccinated people are generally not at risk, the unvaccinated are still at high risk. Therefore, if there is no reliable way to verify vaccination status, indoor mask mandates must still remain in place. At the same time, the administration should define region-by-region criteria for when such mandates can be lifted — for example, when 70 percent of a community is fully vaccinated.

Should we keep wearing masks? Submit your questions for Dr. Leana S. Wen’s May 18 live chat

In addition, the Biden team needs to get over its queasiness over vaccine verification. Businesses, employers and schools are looking for leadership on how they can ensure a safe environment for their customers, workers and students. I’m not saying the federal government should issue a “vaccine passport”; rather, it should help private entities set up a health and safety screen that incorporates proof of vaccination or testing in lieu of a vaccine verification. New York state’s ­Excelsior Pass is a good model. The White House has already been working on minimum requirements for such credentialing; this is the time to release them.

Critically, the Biden administration must admit to the American people that CDC’s guidance was released prematurely and without considering all the implications and unintended consequences. They can say that such a complex decision needs to involve other agencies and stakeholders, and start the process of addressing many unanswered questions — such as what kinds of protections are needed for retail workers if they encounter unvaccinated and unmasked customers. The White House should also engage local and state officials, union representatives and business leaders, and offer a big mea culpa for not having done so in the first place.

In the meantime, the administration should encourage CDC scientists to focus on what they are actually good at. The CDC can guide clinicians on helping patients think through risk, including parents of young children and people who are immunocompromised. They can broaden their surveillance of breakthrough infections, and they can advise on testing, contact tracing and other elements still central to the pandemic response.

But a decision on something as overarching and consequential as ending mask mandates should have been directed from the very top, by the president himself. Biden needs to course-correct, now. If he does not, the existing confusion could harm Americans’ health, prolong the pandemic, and paradoxically diminish confidence in the CDC and its ability to safeguard the public’s health.

Read more:

The Post’s View: How did an outbreak become a pandemic? Too easily. 

Leana S. Wen: The CDC shouldn’t have removed restrictions without requiring proof of vaccination

Gary Abernathy: DeWine’s $1 million vaccine lottery shows he’s willing to gamble

Abraar Karan and Julie Parsonnet: Herd immunity is not a helpful concept for covid-19. It’s time to retire it.

Corby Kummer, José Andrés, Rick Bayless and Russell Jackson: Indoor dining must return. Just not the way we knew it.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

End of the public health emergency: The Biden administration ended the public health emergency for the coronavirus pandemic on May 11, just days after WHO said it would no longer classify the coronavirus pandemic as a public health emergency. Here’s what the end of the covid public health emergency means for you.

Tracking covid cases, deaths: Covid-19 was the fourth leading cause of death in the United States last year with covid deaths dropping 47 percent between 2021 and 2022. See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world.

The latest on coronavirus boosters: The FDA cleared the way for people who are at least 65 or immune-compromised to receive a second updated booster shot for the coronavirus. Here’s who should get the second covid booster and when.

New covid variant: A new coronavirus subvariant, XBB. 1.16, has been designated as a “variant under monitoring” by the World Health Organization. The latest omicron offshoot is particularly prevalent in India. Here’s what you need to know about Arcturus.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

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