Mask U-turn dashes Americans’ euphoria at nascent Covid recovery

Rochelle Walensky exuded euphoria in mid-May when she declared that fully vaccinated adults in the US could shed their masks in “indoor and outdoor activities, large or small”.

Americans had “all longed for this moment”, the director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said, “when we can get back to some sense of normalcy”.

But Walensky’s tone was downbeat this week when the CDC was forced to reverse course, with new guidance calling on vaccinated Americans to wear masks again in many parts of America where the Delta variant of coronavirus has been surging again.

The abrupt U-turn was not just a big setback for health authorities, but was emblematic of the distressing realisation across the country that the pandemic was making a comeback — and not on the steady path to petering out that Americans had expected earlier in the year.

“The Delta variant is showing every day its willingness to outsmart us,” Walensky lamented. 

A resurgence of the disease had been feared by many health experts, hospital workers and government officials since late June, when infection rates started rising again, overwhelmingly among the unvaccinated, bringing the Covid crisis back to the top of the political agenda.

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For Joe Biden, who won the 2020 presidential election partly because of his vows to control the pandemic, the arrival of the Delta variant highlighted the shortcomings of his otherwise speedy vaccination rollout, because it failed to persuade many Republican voters in conservative states to take the jab. 

It also has also cast a cloud over America’s stimulus-fuelled economic recovery, threatening to chill activity again and possibly delay the reopening of in-person learning at schools. 

On Tuesday, Biden put a brave face on the new mask-wearing guidance, saying that he had always pledged to follow the science in battling coronavirus, and the darkest days were still in the rear-view mirror. “Unlike 2020, we have both the scientific knowledge and the tools to prevent the spread of this disease. We are not going back to that,” he said. 

But that afternoon masks were mandatory again inside the White House, and in many indoor settings in the US capital, including the House of Representatives. Biden is also demanding that all federal workers be inoculated. Some Republicans seized on the shift to attack the administration.

“The CDC has become a political arm of the administration. It wants to control every element of our life,” Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader in the House, said on Thursday. “Not only does it contradict information they’ve already released, but it punishes Americans who’ve already done everything they were asked to do.”

Since the reversal, the CDC has come under pressure to justify it. US health officials have cited evidence that vaccinated individuals with “breakthrough” infections could still transmit the virus as one reason for the new guidance on masks, but are facing calls to release it.

But other Republicans were less focused on attacking the administration and more intent on urging conservative voters, with increasingly desperate appeals, to take the vaccination. Mitch McConnell, the top Senate Republican, told Reuters that he would air pro-vaccine ads on local radio stations in Kentucky, because there was “bad advice out there”.

Roy Blunt, a senator from Missouri, told a story of regret from Kole, a 26-year-old from near his hometown, who had a very bad case of Covid recently. “He said, ‘I just remember sitting in the hospital and just thinking to myself, ‘you could have avoided this’.” 

Outside of Washington, state and local officials have been scrambling to adapt their own guidelines and mandates to the suddenly resurgent disease. 

New York and California, once the epicentres of America’s Covid pandemic, this week tightened the screws on those resisting vaccination: all state employees will either have to be vaccinated or face weekly Covid tests, their governors announced. In New York, healthcare workers in state-run hospitals must be vaccinated if they deal with the public. 

“It’s an aggressive step and there will be pushback,” Andrew Cuomo, the New York governor, said of the mandate, but added: “It’s smart, it’s fair, it’s in everyone’s interests.”

Bill de Blasio, New York City mayor, went a step further, announcing a plan to begin offering $100 debit cards to residents who get vaccinated.

On Thursday, Biden urged other state, territorial and local governments to provide $100 payments for newly vaccinated Americans in a bid to increase financial incentives for inoculations.

In New York, the tougher approach coincides with the approaching start of the school year in September as well as a desperate push by civic leaders to return workers to Manhattan office buildings in order to preserve the city’s commercial livelihood. At present, offices are only about one-quarter occupied, according to data supplied by Kastle Systems, the security provider.

That has posed a threat not only to commercial landlords but to thousands of restaurants and small businesses that rely on a robust population of Manhattan office workers, many of whom are commuters. 

The hope was that attendance would rise sharply after the Labor Day holiday, September 6, with companies urging employees to return en masse. Yet those plans could be foiled if the Delta variant continues to push up new infections. 

As he announced the vaccine mandate, Cuomo also appealed to businesses to bring back their workers. “We need private sector companies to say to their employees: ‘I need you back in the office’,” the New York governor said.

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