The CDC stunned the political class last week by telling vaccinated people to ditch their masks. I say better late than never, but many politicians and pundits are less than pleased, even as CNN describes it as a “huge political success” for Biden.
Last week, the CDC made the long overdue announcement that vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks, inside, outside, wherever (well, mostly wherever), and regardless of the size of the group. “If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic,” said Dr. Rochelle Wolensky, director of the CDC. Dr. Anthony Fauci was a tad more cautious, “I wouldn’t want to declare victory prematurely, but I’m saying this is clearly a step in the direction that we want to go.” President Joe Biden declared it a great milestone, before effectively ordering people to get vaccinated, tweeting, “After a year of hard work and so much sacrifice, the rule is now simple: get vaccinated or wear a mask until you do.”
Ostensibly, the change in recommendations was due to three studies, one from Israel and two from the United States. The Israeli study of 5,000 healthcare workers, for instance, showed the vaccine was 97% effective against symptomatic COVID-19 and 86% effective against asymptomatic transmission. At the same time, many people like myself to wonder if politics were at play.
First, the efficacy of the vaccines was never in doubt and distribution in the United States has outstripped most forecasts. Second, 13 states never had mask mandates in the first place, and several states had rescinded theirs in recent months, a move described as “neanderthal thinking” at the time by Joe Biden himself. Third, experts have been eagerly anticipating a third wave for close to two months now. Infamously, Dr. Walensky herself warned of “impending doom” at just the end of March. “I’m going to pause here, I’m going to lose the script and I’m going to reflect on the recurring feeling I have of impending doom,” she said, growing emotional. “We have so much to look forward to. So much promise and potential of where we are and so much reason for hope. But right now I’m scared.”
Further, it was just one week and one day ago when the good Dr. Fauci was claiming that we wouldn’t be back to normal, or “as close to back to normal as we can,” until next Mother’s Day, as in May 2022. In the same interview, he bemoaned the “the kind of numbers we are seeing now.” Less than a week later, however, and it’s time to party.
Press Secretary Jen Psaki had a hard time explaining the sudden switch in position. When reporter Peter Doocy asked her why in March Biden himself described lifting mask mandates before every adult American is fully vaccinated as “neanderthal thinking,” she replied, “Well first, let me say our north star was listening to the guidance of our health and medical experts and teams, and that’s exactly what we are doing in this case.” “This was not a decision made by the White House, the White House was informed of that decision.” Mr. Doocy also asked her about Dr. Walensky’s appearance on CNN the night before announcement, when the White House was supposedly being notified for the first time, claiming the science wasn’t there yet. “I didn’t watch that interview,” she claimed, not even bothering to explain how the director of the CDC herself could appear so clueless.
Regardless, I can’t say I am unhappy with the updated guidance, better late than never and whatever the case. I can say, however, that I am quite definitely unhappy with the reaction from the mainstream media. For starters, were Donald Trump still in office you can be sure the story would be spun as a purely political decision, not backed by any science, pushed by an impatient President recklessly moving ahead with reopening. The strange timeline, a major update to guidance barely two weeks from the last one, the CDC director seemingly unaware of it even as the White House was being informed, and Biden’s imperial presidency tweet demanding vaccination, would have been more than enough to set the mainstream press aflame with theory after theory, culled from completely anonymous sources, without evidence in fact.
Instead, as far as I can tell, they can’t decide whether they should laud Biden’s genius, despite him having next to nothing to do with it, or freak out about the complexities and implications. CNN’s “analysis” by Stephen Collinson and Maeve Reston last Friday was a case study in both, “America’s unmasking brings liberation but also trepidation as huge questions loom.” “The CDC’s decision to change the guidance for fully vaccinated people — which was a surprise even to White House officials informed late Wednesday — marks a huge political success for Biden early in his term and a key turning point on the road to eradicating the pandemic.”
This is one of those statements that makes you wonder if CNN has an editor or they just let rabid partisans and political hacks publish whatever they want regardless of how little sense it makes. If it was “a surprise even to White House officials,” this means Biden himself didn’t know and wasn’t involved, how then can it be a “huge political success”? Moreover, vaccine distribution started last year before Biden was in office. Nothing about the science of the vaccine itself has changed; the same shots are going into people’s arms today. How is it Biden’s success when this guidance could’ve been issued months ago and why do they not seem concerned about Biden going back on his “neanderthal thinking” claims?
Incredibly, according to Mr. Collinson and Ms. Reston this huge success comes with a lot of trepidation. “The CDC’s decision immediately raised a flurry of questions and consequences, including a debate over whether an agency often criticized for being too cautious had suddenly gone too far.” Oddly, in some cases the plan doesn’t go far enough. Masks are still required for travel for example. The director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis Collins, was asked about this on CNN last Thursday night. “In circumstances where people are packed close together and you don’t know the status of immunization of everybody, it is still the better part of being cautious to wear masks on those planes and trains and buses,” he explained. “Once we get further along with an even higher degree of immunization, and the viral infections — which are still 30,000 a day — really continue to drop down, we’ll be able to relax those as well.”
Huh? You can gather in indoor and outdoor crowds as large as you like, but a few people on a plane is where coronavirus lurks? There is also concern over how to determine whether or not someone has been vaccinated. “They will not be able to know. I mean, you’re going to be depending on people being honest enough to say whether they were vaccinated or not, and responsible enough to be wearing… a mask, not only for their own protection, but also for the protection of others,” Dr. Fauci told CNN’s Jake Tapper.
CNN’s medical analyst, Dr. Leana Wen was more blunt. “I do think that we need to send a very clear message that vaccination is your ticket back to pre-pandemic life, but frankly I was shocked by this announcement, I think they went from one extreme to another,” she said. “If you’re going to the grocery store — maybe you’re fully vaccinated, you take off your mask at the grocery store — but who’s going to be checking to see if others are also vaccinated. What does that mean if I’m bringing my son, my 4-year-old who is not fully vaccinated. Now he’s going to be in a grocery store potentially exposed to people who are not vaccinated who could be of danger to him. So I guess I’m kind of befuddled as to where this guidance came from. I think there’s a lot of steps that we’re missing.”
Dr. Wen tweeted separately, “I’m still stunned at the CDC decision. Yes, vaccinated people are well-protected and not a threat to others. But do we trust that the honor system — won’t unvaccinated people pretend to be vaccinated & stop wearing masks? What about our obligation to kids and the immunocompromised?”
Elsewhere, a survey of hundreds of epidemiologists conducted by The New York Times found that more than half believed we’d be wearing masks for a year or more. Twenty six percent claimed we would wear them forever in certain circumstances. “In the informal survey, 80 percent said they thought Americans would need to wear masks in public indoor places for at least another year. Just 5 percent said people would no longer need to wear masks indoors by this summer. In large crowds outdoors, like at a concert or protest, 88 percent of the epidemiologists said it was necessary even for fully vaccinated people to wear masks.”
The epidemiologists are not alone. Nancy Pelosi is still requiring masks on the floor of the House of Representatives, and many other left-leaning politicians and pundits are also concerned. Firebrand progressive Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took to Instagram. “NYC got hit so hard that I think some of us are going to take time adjusting as we feel comfortable,” Democratic from New York wrote. “Personally I’m going to keep wearing my mask in shared indoor public spaces like elevators, subway, grocery store, etc.” She also told her followers, “if you want to keep wearing your mask then do it.” She even added that she’ll keep wearing one herself, indefinitely, at least from time to time. “Mask wearing is also something I’ll probably continue doing overall from time to time if I feel like I might be coming down with something and don’t want to spread it.”
Her home state of New York and her home town of New York City have no plans to lift their mandates anytime soon. Neither does my home state of New Jersey. I rarely agree with Rachel Maddow, but I think she inadvertently characterized the liberal side of the aisle quite well in this case. “I feel like I’m going to have to rewire myself so that when I see someone out in the world who’s not wearing a mask, I don’t instantly think, ‘You are a threat,’” she said. “Or you are selfish or you are a Covid denier and you definitely haven’t been vaccinated. I mean, we’re going to have to rewire the way that we look at each other.”
Confusion? Lack of trust? Disagreement with other scientists? A danger to kids? Rewiring the way we look at each other? If this is success, one shudders to think of what failure looks like in the Joe Biden era.