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Ahead of new masking guidelines, White House wants to stop mixed messages


The CDC is expected to put out updated guidance on masks. And public health experts are saying the agency and the White House need to be very deliberate about how they talk about it because the CDC's history of mixed messaging during this pandemic has sown a lot of confusion. Here's NPR's Tamara Keith.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: It was May 13, 2021. And CDC Director Rochelle Walensky surprised a lot of people when she announced those who were fully vaccinated need not wear masks anymore.


ROCHELLE WALENSKY: If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic. We have all longed for this moment when we can get back to some sense of normalcy.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Well, today is a great day for America.

KEITH: Within hours, President Biden was in the White House Rose Garden, celebrating.


BIDEN: It's been made possible by the extraordinary success we've had in vaccinating so many Americans so quickly.

KEITH: Masks, which had become a potent symbol of the pandemic, a flashpoint in a divided nation, were no longer needed - or so everyone was told for a couple of months until the delta wave came. And evidence mounted that vaccinated people could still get COVID and spread it to others. At the time the policy was announced, there were concerns that unvaccinated people would unmask, too. And there would be no way of knowing. Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the School of Public Health at Brown University, saw another problem with the announcement.

ASHISH JHA: I actually think that removing the mask mandate made sense, but needed to be coupled with a very clear message that if we see more surges, we're going to have to put masks back on.

KEITH: Jha says that wasn't communicated clearly.

JHA: And so people really thought this was, somehow, a permanent thing. And then when masking needed to go back in place, people somehow came to understand that that was somehow a failure of vaccines or a reversal. It wasn't.

KEITH: Jha is among those advising the White House on how to prepare for the next phase of the pandemic. He's taken to describing masks as a tool akin to a raincoat.

JHA: You wear it when it's raining. You take it off when it stops raining. And if we think of masks in that way then, yeah, during surges, we should have masks. And everybody should be wearing them. And then when the surge ends, we should take off our masks.

KEITH: The CDC's Walensky has telegraphed the new guidance will be based on hospitalizations and severe disease rather than case numbers alone. And she's already talking about bringing masks back if they're needed.


WALENSKY: We want to give people a break from things like mask-wearing when these metrics are better, and then have the ability to reach for them again should things worsen.

KEITH: The decision to relax mask guidelines is politically fraught, despite the mantra from the White House and CDC that they are following the science. In most of the country, mask mandates are coming down or already long gone, putting the CDC guidance out of touch with the reality most Americans are living. Meanwhile, those who are immunocompromised or have young children say they're feeling left behind. But George Washington University public health professor Leana Wen, who was critical of the CDC last May, says 2022 isn't 2021.

LEANA WEN: Now the vaccination rate overall is much higher. Children 5 and older have been able to be vaccinated since November. Omicron is also a milder variant and has swept through the country. And I think, as importantly, there is a recognition that we cannot be in a perpetual state of emergency.

KEITH: She argues there need to be clear, easy-to-understand metrics, off-ramps and on-ramps for when conditions change.

Tamara Keith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINEG'S "WHISKEY, SMOKE AND JAZZ") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.