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.
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.
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.