Why some of Biden’s top doctors are wearing masks in “low” COVID areas
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Two of the Biden administration’s top doctors now say they are now choosing to wear masks indoors even in communities officially deemed to have “low” levels of COVID-19.
“I’ve been masking more, partially because I’ve really had engagements that I’ve really wanted to get to, and didn’t want to have to cancel,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said last week at an event hosted by the Milken Institute in Los Angeles.
Photos posted by Walensky during her trip out West showed her masking during several stops in Southern California, including meeting with CDC staff.
Nationwide, COVID cases and hospitalizations have been rising.
Walensky’s decision echoes similar comments made last week by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president’s chief medical adviser, during an interview in which he explained his decision to skip the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
“I have a number of very important commitments that are coming up in the next week or so, and if I wound up getting infected, even if I didn’t get terribly ill, I’d have to cancel all of those commitments. So I made a personal decision based on my own evaluation of my risk, and that decision was not to take the chance,” Fauci told Foreign Policy last week.
Still, Fauci said he “would not necessarily wear a mask” in small gatherings where he knew others were vaccinated, but cited his own “risk aversion” against attending larger unmasked gatherings.
President Biden spoke at the dinner, and several other top administration officials also attended, including the White House’s top COVID-19 official Dr. Ashish Jha. A number of attendees later disclosed testing positive for the virus following the indoor gathering, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and CBS President and CEO George Cheeks.
A White House spokesperson did not respond to multiple requests to make Jha available for an interview.
“I would not necessarily wear a mask if I were in a room with a few people and I knew what their vaccination status was. But if I go into an unknown place, an indoor setting where there are a lot of people around, and I have no idea what their status is — again, given my age and my risk aversion because of my other responsibilities — I would wear a mask,” said Fauci.
“I wouldn’t say it’s absolutely necessary and you must regulate someone to wear a mask. But I would say you make a personal decision that if you’re in a setting like that, wear a mask,” he added.
Three in four Americans live in communities of “low” COVID-19 levels
As of the last weekly update from Walensky’s agency, residents of Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. number among the three in four Americans living in the green zone of counties at “low” COVID-19 Community Levels. Those are calculated based on a formula of not just cases, but also hospital admissions and capacity.
Only at “medium” levels does the CDC urge people to consider masking during indoor contact with someone at risk of severe disease. At “high” COVID-19, the agency says all Americans should wear a mask indoors, regardless of vaccination status.
However, the nationwide average of new COVID-19 cases has also been accelerating since March. Among nursing home residents, some regions are now seeing their fastest pace of infections since early February.
More than half of counties are reporting enough new infections to be at “high” or “substantial” risk of community transmission, the threshold at which the CDC urges hospitals and nursing homes to require masks to curb outbreaks of the disease among their patients.
Federal health officials have acknowledged that the official tally is also increasingly undercounting the true number of infections, with more Americans now turning to unreported at-home tests to figure out if they have caught the virus.
The pace of new hospital admissions has also climbed nationwide by around 18% in federal data, with the New York and New Jersey region now seeing COVID-19 hospitalizations at levels as high as the Delta variant wave’s worst days last year.
Officials have chalked up the country’s renewed surge in part to the BA.2.12.1 subvariant of Omicron, which CDC estimated on Tuesday now makes up 42.6% of new infections. In the New York and New Jersey region, around two in three new cases are BA.2.12.1.
Many communities across the Northeast, including Walensky’s home outside Boston, are now seeing both enough infections and hospitalizations combined to reach “high” levels of COVID by the agency’s count.
“A lot of this is people’s individual and personal risk. We do know with this new variant, with Omicron and with BA.2 specifically, that there is less risk of severe disease. And so people are taking that into account as they take their own personal risk assessment,” Walensky said.