Back in May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention belatedly admitted what most sentient observers already knew to be true: The risk of contracting and transmitting COVID-19 among vaccinated Americans is so vanishingly small that the fully immunized can get rid of their face masks. The community of COVID maximalists has never forgiven the agency for its laxity. And now, amid a new wave of infections limited almost exclusively to the unvaccinated, members of the Biden administration are subtly undermining the administration’s own guidance in an effort to restore mask mandates.
On Sunday, Los Angeles County became the first major metro area to reimpose an indoor mask mandate on the public—a fraught prospect that lacks any enforcement mechanism and will surely compel the unvaccinated to seek out enclaves of non-enforcement in which to congregate, undermining America’s relative herd immunity. That prospect doesn’t seem to trouble Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. He applauded LA’s move and insisted that mandating indoor masking for the vaccinated and unvaccinated alike is in no way “contradictory to the guidance the CDC issued.” It’s true that the CDC did allow for “federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial” exceptions to its guidelines. And yet, the notion that this regulation doesn’t conflict with the agency’s guidance, which advises you to “resume activities without wearing a mask or staying 6 feet apart” if you’re fully vaccinated, strains credulity.
Likewise, Dr. Anthony Fauci this week came out in favor of recommendations issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics that go beyond the CDC’s guidance when it comes to masking. The AAP “recommends universal masking” in educational establishments for all Americans ages three and up regardless of vaccination status because schools “will not have a system to monitor vaccine status” and “some communities overall have low vaccination uptake.” No accounting was made for the fact that both a community’s vaccination rate and an individual’s vaccination status are hardly unknowable—one need only ask or consult the available statistics. Nor is there any indication that children are vectors of COVID transmission. Nevertheless, Fauci agreed with the AAP’s logic. When “you have a substantial proportion of the population that is unvaccinated, that you really want to go the extra step, the extra mile, to make sure that there’s not a lot of transmission, even breakthrough infections, among vaccinated individuals,” he conceded.
Again, the recommendations the CDC issued in May for educational establishments were not this cautious. After some wrestling with itself, this agency came around to admitting that vaccinated adolescents and educators or camp counselors could forego masks entirely, and younger children were not at such risk that they had to observe protocols that their elders did not. In short, these prominent members of the Biden administration are insisting that it would be unwise to take the Biden administration’s guidance as an absolute maxim.
It’s hard to avoid the impression that we’re witnessing a pressure campaign designed to compel the CDC to reimpose COVID mitigation restrictions on the public. There’s more where this came from. The World Health Organization advises all adults to continue masking even if they’re fully vaccinated. Donald Trump’s surgeon general, Dr. Jerome Adams, insists that the CDC was “premature” to abandon its masking guidance. Ubiquitous public health advocate Dr. Leana Wen advises all parents of children under 12 to continue to avoid public indoor settings like restaurants even with a mask. But if you must go inside, masking should be mandatory. “With coronavirus infections climbing throughout the country and the pandemic worsening once more,” she wrote, “the Biden administration needs to strongly urge a return of covid-19 restrictions.” After all, the United States is on a much “different trajectory” than it was in May (when she also opposed the lifting of mask mandates).
To judge from the media landscape, the activists who favor a return of pandemic-related restrictions even despite the nation’s enviable immunization rate are winning the argument. Polling—an industry whose own professionals confess is hopelessly broken—suggests that the public overwhelmingly favors the reimposition of onerous mid-pandemic restrictions on social and economic life. It seems like a safe bet that the Biden administration will eventually agree with the loudest voices in the room—sacrificing its claim to have broken the pandemic and scuttling much of the progress toward a full economic recovery in the process.
It’s not at all clear what effect restoring mask mandates will have on localized rates of COVID infection. If, however, the Biden administration accepts the premise that the pandemic is back in full force despite all the sacrifices the public has already made over the last 18 months, the political consequences are far easier to predict.