C.D.C. Resists Pressure to Change Guidance on Masks

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A color-coded map on the agency’s website shows the entire country in red; 99 percent of all counties are in a high transmission zone — a point Dr. Walensky underscored on Wednesday.

The public is understandably confused. Several weeks ago, with Omicron infections soaring, the C.D.C. clarified its stance on various kinds of masks, acknowledging that the cloth masks frequently worn by Americans do not offer as much protection as surgical or respirator masks. A few days later, Mr. Biden announced his administration would distribute 400 million high-quality N95 masks free to the public.

Now, several experts said, the agency must quickly come up with metrics for when masking and other mitigation measures should be relaxed — and when they should be reinstated. Dr. Wen spoke of an “offramp” and an “on ramp” for mitigation measures, and said two factors are critical: whether hospitals and intensive care units have sufficient capacity, and whether vaccines and boosters are protecting well against severe disease.

“The offramp for restrictions needs to be their top priority, because this is what individuals, businesses, state and local officials are thinking about every day,” she said.

Drs. Wen, Gounder and Osterholm are on a long list of experts with whom the White House has recently consulted. None of the participants would describe the discussions, except to say that the administration officials participating — including Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, the surgeon general; Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, President Biden’s top medical adviser for Covid-19; and Dr. David A. Kessler, the science adviser for the Covid response — did more listening than talking.

The meetings with outside experts appear to have been prompted by a trio of articles published in January in the Journal of the American Medical Association, in which six former Biden transition advisers urged the administration to take a longer view and begin drafting a pandemic playbook aimed at “the new normal.”

The effort was led by Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, an oncologist and medical ethicist who advised former President Barack Obama. In the first article, Dr. Emanuel, Dr. Gounder and Dr. Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota, wrote that the United States must avoid becoming stuck in “a perpetual state of emergency.”