By CHEYENNE HASLETT, ABC News
(WASHINGTON) — The Biden administration’s coronavirus task force said it does not agree with states that have begun to loosen restrictions as cases begin to drop from the all-time peak endured over the last month, warning during a White House briefing with reporters on Monday that the increased risk of variants spreading across the country are reason to keep those restrictions up, not weaken them.
States like New York and Massachusetts have recently backed off some stricter restrictions imposed during the winter months, like banning all indoor dining. And in a more extreme case, Iowa’s governor repealed the mask mandate across the state.
But it’s important to note that the U.S. has been here before, experts said, most notably over the summer when states pulled back their restrictions, reopening after lockdowns and bringing on another spike. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky, chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci and coronavirus adviser Andy Slavitt were clear in Monday’s briefing that they were encouraging states not to go that route again.
“We have yet to control this pandemic. We still have this emerging threat of variants, and I would just simply discourage any of those activities,” Walensky said, regarding loosened restrictions. “We really need to keep all of the mitigation measures at play here if we’re really going get control of this pandemic.”
She urged all Americans to “keep your guard up” as cases and hospital admissions drop — noting that the country is still seeing well over 100,000 cases a day and far more hospitalizations per day than were reported during the summer peak.
“We are continuing to watch these data closely, and although hospital admissions and cases are consistently dropping, I’m asking everyone to please keep your guard up. The continued proliferation of variants remains of great concern, and is a threat that could reverse the recent positive trends we are seeing,” Walensky said.
As of Feb. 7, 699 variant cases have been confirmed across 34 states. Of those cases, 690 are the B-117 variant, the variant first reported in the U.K., Walensky said. It’s estimated that far more variant cases are already here, but most testing centers don’t do the type of detailed sequencing required to find variants. Walensky said over the last three weeks, the CDC has increased surveillance of variants by tenfold and aims to increase another three or four times that.
Walensky said it’s important to wear a mast, stay 6 feet apart and to avoid travel, crowds and poorly ventilated spaces. The public also needs to “get vaccinated when it’s available to you. I recognize that the pandemic has taken an enormous toll on all of us. But if we all work together and take these prevention steps, we can finally turn the tide,” Walensky said.
“Underscoring what Dr. Walensky just said, the two things that we can do is A, make sure we adhere to the public health measures that Dr. Walensky just mentioned, and B, get as many people vaccinated as quickly as we possibly can. That’s the best defense against the evolution of variants,” Fauci said.
Asked specifically what the White House was doing to pressure states not to relax their guidelines, Slavitt and Walensky didn’t have concrete policy steps, saying that they’ve been clear with states and are in constant communication to try to guide their decisions with available data.
“I will just say I think our stand on this is pretty well-established. We attend a weekly governors call at least and I’ve been in touch one on one with numerous governors already, so I’m doing my best and I’m happy to do more to encourage the states to decrease their community spread so that we can decrease the threat of these variants, decrease our hospitalizations and get this pandemic under control,” Walensky said.
Slavitt added that they understand the pressure states are under to reopen.
“And the only thing I’ll add to that is that, you know, we understand the pressures the governors are under. We are taking a collaborative approach as much as possible, sharing with them the data, helping them understand as we’ve covered on this call why we’re in such a critical period to combating the virus and hope to continue to work to persuade and partner with states and localities, to continue to follow sensible public health measures,” he said.
Massachusetts, Iowa and New York are among the states relaxing COVID restrictions this week. In Massachusetts, businesses, including restaurants, gyms and close-contact services are allowed to operate at 40% capacity as of Monday, WCVB-TV reported. Those businesses had been restricted to 25% capacity.
In New York City, restaurants will be allowed customers indoors starting Friday, at 25% capacity, Gov. Andrew Cuomo confirmed Monday. Iowa’s Gov. Kim Reynolds lifted the state’s mask mandate as of Sunday.
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