HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: CDC Eases Mask Stance in Step to Normalcy

President Joe Biden took his biggest step yet toward declaring victory over Covid-19, as public health officials said fully vaccinated Americans may ditch their masks in most places, even indoors or in large groups.

“Today is a great day for America in our long battle with coronavirus,” Biden said in the White House Rose Garden yesterday, calling the country’s vaccination effort an “historical logistical achievement.”

The guidance shift is a turning point in the fight against Covid-19 and comes as U.S. caseloads fall and vaccinations grow. It signals a broad return to everyday life, and is also a bet that any surge in spread from relaxed guidelines won’t be enough to reverse progress in inoculations. The administration also used it as a further incentive for vaccination. “The rule is very simple: Get vaccinated or wear a mask until you do,” Biden said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the change in guidance while citing growing evidence that vaccines are effective against variants and outside of clinical trials, and fully vaccinated people are at low risk to spread the virus to someone else.

“Anyone who is fully vaccinated can participate in indoor or outdoor activities, large or small, without wearing a mask or physical distancing,” said CDC Director Rochelle Walensky. “If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing.”

The CDC guidance spelled out ample exceptions, however, that signal the era of masks isn’t over yet. It still recommends fully vaccinated people use masks on “all planes, buses, trains and other forms of public transportation,” as well as in hospitals, prisons, homeless shelters, and wherever required by state and local governments or businesses.

And masks are still recommended for people who are partially vaccinated—those who’ve not yet waited two weeks from their final dose—or who haven’t gotten a shot, including children. The guidelines are suggestions for behavior but they don’t hold the force of law. Ground-level decisions on face masks rest with states, localities, and businesses, which will have to decide whether to maintain or relax their masking mandates.

Yet even with those exceptions, the announcement represents a watershed moment. Only six weeks ago, Walensky had warned of “impending doom” as cases, hospitalizations and deaths rose. Yesterday’s change was met in Washington with sighs of relief, as members of Congress and staff at the White House almost immediately dropped their masks.

“Free at last,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said. Read more from Josh Wingrove and Emma Court.

  • Still, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said masks will still be required for members of Congress and staff on the House floor despite the new CDC guidance. She isn’t easing the requirement because its not known how many House members and their staffs are vaccinated, said her spokesman, Drew Hammill. Separately, the attending physician, Brian Monahan, issued guidance relaxing mask and distancing requirements in House office buildings and other areas of the Capitol complex for those who have been fully vaccinated. Read more from Erik Wasson and Billy House.

Business in ‘Damned If You Do’ Bind: Companies are racing to assess their mask policies after the surprise announcement. Home Depot and TJX said they don’t immediately plan to change their policies advising face coverings be worn inside their stores, while Macy’s, Levi, and Gap said they’re reviewing the new advice. The National Restaurant Association is also looking at the recommendations. What many companies have in common, however, is that they were caught off-guard. Richard Clough, Matthew Boyle and Jordyn Holman have more.

More on the Pandemic

Biden to Direct Billions to State, Local Health Efforts: Biden will offer states $7.4 billion to recruit and hire public health workers to respond to the coronavirus while also preparing for future health crises, the White House said yesterday. It announced roughly $4.4 billion from Biden’s $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package will let state and local officials hire public health specialists to work on issues such as contact tracing. Of the funds, $500 million may be spent to hire school nurses, and $400 million is set aside to launch Public Health AmeriCorps.

Another $3 billion, to be administered by the CDC, will go toward a new grant program to fund staffing at health departments that lack resources to hire additional employees or keep extra staff they hired during the pandemic. It also includes $337 million for hiring in public health laboratories, including undergraduate student interns. Read more from Jennifer Jacobs and Josh Wingrove.

  • The multibillion-dollar push to expand the public health workforce will likely take months to stand up, putting thousands of disease investigators and contract tracers to work as the U.S. turns the corner on coronavirus infections and deaths. The new workforce also will need to be able to tackle issues beyond Covid-19, from sexually transmitted diseases to the opioid crisis, health officials say. Otherwise, Biden might create a massive army of health experts focused on the wrong problems, Alex Ruoff and Jeannie Baumann report.

Virus Border Restrictions Irk Both Parties: The Department of Homeland Security is relying on public health restrictions as it develops a new plan to address the immigration surge at the southern border, to the frustration of Democrats and Republicans alike. Several Democrats on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee want the Biden administration to end the public health restrictions at the border, referred to as Title 42. The Trump administration, through the CDC, used the law to close the border to migrants and asylum-seekers at the beginning of the pandemic. The Biden administration has allowed exceptions to Title 42 to allow children and some asylum-seekers into the country, which Republicans said is causing a growing crisis at the border, Shaun Courtney reports.

Vaccine Making Said to Need Dedicated Funding: Drug companies won’t continue to partner with the federal government to develop the sorts of technologies that led to the fast creation of Covid-19 vaccines and treatments if it doesn’t keep and boost its commitment to pandemic preparedness, a top health official said. The Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority needs dedicated and consistent funding to make investments for future pandemics and “ensure the highest probability of success,” its leader, Gary Disbrow, said. Shira Stein has more.

Bill to Give $30 Billion to Gyms: Sens. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) introduced a bill that would authorize $30 billion in grants to struggling gyms and fitness facilities, according to a statement. “It’s critical we support the fitness industry to help bring back jobs and provide Americans with opportunities to improve their fitness during this public health crisis,” Duckworth said in a statement, Brody Ford reports.

Finance Panel to Hold Virus Health Care Hearing: The Senate Finance Committee announced a May 19 hearing to discuss health-care flexibilities, such as telehealth, and lessons learned during the pandemic, according to a release.

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What Else to Know Today

Shields for LGBT Health, Religion Set to Clash: New guidance from the Biden administration shielding LGBT people from discrimination in health care is poised to collide with the strongly held religious beliefs of some doctors and federal law in place to protect them. Under Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act, doctors and insurers taking federal funds are prohibited from denying a person care or health coverage based on their race, color, national origin, sex, age, or disability. The new administration interprets “sex” to include sexual orientation and gender identity—but religious freedom advocates aren’t buying it. Lydia Wheeler has more.

Officials Set Rules for Expanding Home-Based Care: States can get a boost to their federal Medicaid payments covering at-home nursing services to reduce their waiting lists for home and community-based service under guidance released yesterday. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services laid out how states can get a 10% increase in the federal portion of their Medicaid payments to increase access to home- and community-based services for Medicaid beneficiaries. Read more from Alex Ruoff.

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To contact the reporter on this story: Brandon Lee in Washington at blee@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Zachary Sherwood at zsherwood@bgov.com; Giuseppe Macri at gmacri@bgov.com; Michaela Ross at mross@bgov.com

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