White House tiptoes around governors relaxing coronavirus rules

The Biden administration is treading lightly with governors who are relaxing coronavirus restrictions — even as top federal health officials urge the public to keep wearing masks and social distancing to limit the spread of highly contagious virus variants.

With the number of new infections and hospitalizations finally falling after a months-long winter surge, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said that indoor dining can resume, with capacity limits, on Friday. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has already eased occupancy restrictions on restaurants, gyms and casinos. And Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds has repealed her state’s mask mandate.

President Joe Biden’s team has used its thrice-weekly Covid-19 press briefings to emphasize the need to uphold basic public health measures, including limiting travel and gatherings, in the face of the variant threat. But officials leading the administration’s pandemic response have shied away from criticizing specific states. And behind the scenes, the White House’s weekly calls with governors have largely focused on vaccine distribution, according to two sources on the calls.

In the meantime, at least 34 states have reported cases of a coronavirus strain thought to be 30-50 percent more transmissible than older versions of the virus. Federal scientists have predicted that the strain, first identified in the U.K. and known as B.1.1.7, could become predominant in the U.S. by late March.

Biden campaigned on promises he’d take strong action to bring the pandemic under control — and touted his skills as a negotiator. Now, public health experts say that the administration’s reticence to pressure states that are easing restrictions could jeopardize the fragile progress in reducing the rate of cases and deaths. If cases of B.1.1.7 or other variants begin surging, that could overwhelm hospitals and even undermine ongoing vaccination efforts by giving the virus more chances to mutate.

“The new administration is getting to a point in the response where they may have to make some decisions about being more aggressive with governors or other sort of elected officials around things that need to happen in communities to slow the spread,” said Chrissie Juliano, the head of the Big Cities Coalition, which represents metropolitan health departments. “Those include masking and thinking about indoor dining.”

The White House did not respond to questions about whether federal officials have discussed reopenings with governors directly, or whether states should impose further restrictions to slow the spread of the variants. Instead, White House coronavirus response senior adviser Andy Slavitt gave a statement to POLITICO emphasizing the administration’s decisions to require masks for travelers and for anyone on federal property.

“While we are realistic enough to understand that this doesn’t mean every governor will be [in] alignment with our policies, we urge all Americans to protect themselves, their families, and their communities by wearing a mask,” Slavitt said.

Roughly a year into the pandemic, at least 35 states mandate the use of masks. Others — including Iowa, Montana and North Dakota — have let their requirements lapse or rolled them back. The number of cases per day are higher now in many places than during strict lockdowns last spring and early fall. But with pandemic fatigue setting in and economies battered from months of restrictions, politicians in red and blue states alike are under pressure to loosen restrictions.

“It’s a little hard for governors to say they’re going to start restricting things when cases are going down,” said Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.

Ryan Westergaard, the Wisconsin Health Department’s epidemiologist for communicable diseases, was also sympathetic to the tough decisions facing state leaders.

“I understand the temptation, because we seem to have endured the worst surge in cases,” he said. “But It’s important to take the long-view and realize we need to do work to drive transmissions as low as possible … We are quite a ways from that point right now.”

Last week, Wisconsin legislators voted to revoke the state’s mask rule — and were almost immediately overruled by an executive order from Gov. Tony Evers extending the requirement through March 20.

But many state and city leaders are taking a wait-and-see approach on variants — forgoing new or stricter safeguards for now in favor of pleading with the public to keep wearing masks and get vaccinated as soon as they are eligible.

The United States has identified nearly 950 cases of coronavirus variants — including B.1.1.7 and strains first identified in South Africa and Brazil — according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But that is almost certainly an undercount because of the country’s lagging genomic surveillance program.

To fully understand how variants are spreading, experts say the United States should be sequencing the genomes of about 5-10 percent of virus samples from people who test positive for Covid-19. Right now, the U.S. is only sequencing about 0.5 percent of those samples.

“We are walking to the jaws of a lion. The B.1.1.7 variant is going to be a very, very serious challenge going ahead,” said Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease researcher at the University of Minnesota who advised the Biden transition.

“In the next 6-12 weeks we are going to have a potentially major surge of cases in this country,” he said, based on the experiences of European countries where the B.1.1.7 variant spread quickly. The major decisions to reverse or blunt that trend lie with state officials, Osterholm added.

Multiple state health departments told POLITICO that they’ve been in contact with the CDC about the B.1.1.7 and other variants. A CDC official told POLITICO that the agency is offering laboratory support and funding to help states sequence the genomes of virus samples.

Officials in South Carolina — the first state to confirm cases of the South African variant, B.1.351 — say they have not received specific guidance from the CDC about how to control the spread of the new variants.

For now, the state has increased sequencing to detect more cases of the variant and is relying on traditional mitigation measures: “physical distancing, wearing a mask in public, good hand washing practices, and getting vaccinated when it is your turn,” a state spokesperson said.

The CDC confirmed to POLITICO that it isn’t planning any specific guidance for states on additional measures to mitigate the new strains’ spread.

“We are constantly assessing the pandemic, as well as the latest science, and will update guidance if needed,” a CDC spokesperson said. “Right now, we have no evidence to suggest current prevention measures are not effective against variants.”

The spokesperson added that the CDC is in “regular contact” with state leaders to share science related to the pandemic and strategies to contain the coronavirus.

In the meantime, state leaders are facing tough decisions about how to handle the variant threat — their constituents’ growing impatience with Covid-19 safeguards.

Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt, a Republican, has diverged from state policy and ordered a mask mandate through March that he expects to extend beyond that point. But despite bucking Gov. Kevin Stitt, a fellow Republican, on masks, Holt has not considered more stringent public health measures, like closing businesses, to prevent new strains from spreading.

“How would I have justified that over the last month?” he said, noting that the city’s coronavirus case and death counts have nearly halved in that time period, likely due to increased immunity from vaccinations and previous case surges.

“The reality is — and this is maybe one of the challenges of managing a pandemic in a democratic society — is you really can’t get ahead of things, you have to be responsive, because public buy-in is such a critical aspect of its effectiveness,” said Holt. “If you’re not seeing the variants in your own backyard, you’re not likely to do anything about it.”

David Lim contributed to this report.

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