CDC Director Avoids Naming Specific Benchmarks for Changing Mask Guidance

CDC Director Avoids Naming Specific Benchmarks for Changing Mask Guidance
In this image from video, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky speaks during a virtual interview on Feb. 8, 2022. (Reuters)
Nick Ciolino

Public health officials are still not offering specific benchmarks that would trigger the easing of recommendations related to COVID-19.

At a White House COVID update on Feb. 9, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky said there will “come a time when we move from a phase of crisis to a point where COVID-19 is not disrupting our daily lives.”

But when asked what the benchmark for lifting the agency’s universal indoor masking guidance is, Walensky responded without offering any specifics.

“We’re, of course, taking a close look at this in real-time, and we’re evaluating rates of transmission as well as rates of severe outcomes as we look at updating and reviewing our guidance,” she said.

This comes as many of the U.S. states that have kept restrictions in place the longest are now lifting them. The Democrat-run states of California, Delaware, Connecticut, and New York have all recently made moves to lift masking requirements.

The transmission rate of the virus is also dropping off in the wake of the recent surge driven by the Omicron variant. Walensky announced Tuesday a 44 percent decrease in cases and a 25 percent decrease in hospitalizations nationwide from the previous week.

While the CDC masking recommendation still stands, Walensky says that the decision of whether or not to follow that recommendation should be made “at the local level.”

“The policies at the local level will look at local cases, they’ll look at how local hospitals are doing, they’ll look at local vaccination rates,” she said.

Meanwhile, the federal government is getting ready to distribute COVID vaccines for children under five years old ahead of final approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for that age group.

The FDA is scheduled to meet Feb. 15 to review data from clinical trials run by the pharmaceutical company Pfizer. Officials are assuring the decision to approve will be based on the vaccine’s “efficacy and safety.”

As it has for previous COVID vaccines, the federal government is getting out ahead of the approval process by announcing its preparation to distribute the vaccines specially formulated for children under five.

White House adviser Jeff Zients said Tuesday it’s working with states and pediatricians to prepare to distribute 18 million vaccine kits meant for children.

“We’re working closely with pediatricians, and family doctors, and children’s hospitals and pharmacies to make sure the vaccine is available at thousands of locations across the country—locations that parents know and trust,” said Zients. “We can start packing and shipping the vaccine once the FDA makes its decision.”

Also Tuesday, White House medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci signaled the possible future recommendation for some populations to get a fourth vaccine shot. The CDC currently recommends two primary series mRNA vaccines followed by a third booster dose.

Fauci says the decision of whether to recommend a fourth dose could be based on age and underlying conditions.

“I don’t think you’re going to be hearing, if you do, any kind of recommendations that would be across the board for everyone,” said Fauci. “It very likely will take into account what subset of people have a diminished or not protection against the important parameters such as hospitalization.”

Fauci says data on how long the first booster shot remains effective will be available in not a “very long period of time.”

People with weakened immune systems are currently the only group the CDC recommends getting four vaccine doses.

On Feb. 4 the agency said it’s planning to adjust its guidance for that population to get its fourth dose sooner. It also said it will make an alteration to the recommended vaccine schedule for the general public to try to bring down the number of post-vaccination heart inflammation cases.