Biden team considers a return to mask mandates in some states

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As part of conversations on how the government might do more to stem the spread of the Delta strain, top Biden administration officials are evaluating whether to propose that states and localities with poor vaccination rates reimpose mask regulations, particularly indoors.

Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations are on the rise in the South and Midwest, according to four people familiar with the matter.

The Delta strain is expected to continue to cause a spike in the number of cases over the next several months, two of the people said. Biden's top health officials have also been debating whether to encourage businesses, health care facilities, and other institutions to require proof of Covid-19 vaccination as a condition for returning to work.

As a result of these high-level talks, the government is striving to develop new and more efficient methods to protect Americans living in areas where infections are on the rise.

The benefits of new government rules are divided among officials, with some worried that they will be politicized and fuel new Republican attacks on the president's health care plan. "Vaccine passports" — an increasingly popular conservative talking point — would be created if evidence of vaccination were required, according to this group, which fears it would isolate and stigmatize those who choose not to receive the shot. For the same reason, they think that demands to reinstate the mask mandate are doomed to failure.

Someone said, "It's a political issue." If they wait for the White House to declare some type of mandate, they'll rush on it for political reasons, says [Florida Gov. Ron] DeSantis and his team.

Some medical officials on the White House Covid team who have been pushing for vaccine verification believe it will give a boost to the country's sluggish immunization program and, at the very least, force state and local officials to consider reverting to some of the strict public health measures that helped slow the spread of Covid-19 earlier in the pandemic.

On Sunday, participants agreed it would be politically simpler to call on states and jurisdictions to follow tight masking standards and social distancing suggestions than to take a public stance on whether or not vaccine records should be made public.

A spokesman for the White House declined to make any comments regarding the event. After a week of silence, The Washington Post reported this week that the Obama administration was seriously contemplating suggesting that Americans wear masks once again.

As part of their discussions, health experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have been discussing new vaccine guidelines for Americans for weeks. One senior administration official with firsthand knowledge of the subject claimed they've been attempting to acquire data on the Delta version to assist support these policy judgments.

Ashish Jha, dean of the school of public health at Brown University, said the federal government could play a role without actually being the entity that verifies vaccines. "I wish the administration would take that on, more forcefully, saying not that they're going to do the passports but that they're going to enable private companies to do it well," he said.

A reintroduction to masking regulations may confuse Americans and create suspicion in conservative, rural regions, experts say. Afraid of the political repercussions and allegations of discrimination, the government has likewise mainly resisted the concept of mandating official evidence of vaccination.

Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota and an epidemiologist who served on Biden's coronavirus advisory board during the presidential transition, said vaccine-hesitant people would refuse to sign a form if they were told today they must be vaccinated. When it comes to attempting to get this population vaccinated, we may be our own worst enemies.

On Monday, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced that it will require frontline health professionals to get vaccinated against influenza. Earlier in the day, other hospitals and medical groups had supported similar policies.

For an administration that had long ruled out the possibility of government requirements due to concerns that they would erode vaccine trust and intensify opposition, the immunization requirement was a sudden change of heart.

Psaki said it was "not the duty of the federal government" to force individuals to take photos.

And as the number of cases reached levels not seen since May, Psaki's tone changed.

On Monday, just before the VA announced its new policy, she stated, "It is prudent for the federal government to be looking at all possible actions."

American Public Health Association President Georges Benjamin said he expects the Veterans Administration will be the first of several departments to issue regulations. "I don't anticipate the White House to go further than that," he added. All the governors who have responded, "Nope, not in my state," are now at odds with you. Not over how to immunize, but over the politics of it.

Eight weeks will be given to front-line VA health professionals to get completely immunized. Ezekiel Emanuel, a Biden friend and a member of the Covid-19 team that advised the Biden transition, organized a new effort among private-sector health groups to urge vaccination of health care employees.

According to Emanuel, his support for requiring vaccines is "well known" within the White House, even if his work on the subject of the health care sector was uncoordinated with the White House.

Regarding the vaccination effort, he said: "We've done everything that we can." What further can be done?

During the previous two weeks, the private-sector initiative came together, and since it was announced, other health groups have wanted to join.

You know that you've touched a nerve when 57 health care groups that never agree on anything step up to the plate, he added.

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