Biden's State of the Union unmasks the politics of the CDC

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Late last Friday, the CDC released new guidance that drastically reduced indoor masking recommendations. Prior guidance recommended more than 90 percent of Americans and 100 percent of public school students mask indoors. Under the new guidance, the CDC recommends just 29 percent of Americans and just 31 percent of public school students do so.

The question to ask is not why the CDC made this dramatic change. It’s why now

RESTAURANT OWNER RIPS CITY OFFICIALS, WHITE HOUSE FOR ‘EXTREMELY POLITICAL’ DECISIONS TO LIFT MASK MANDATES

A pedestrian removes a protective mask worn as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus in Philadelphia, Wednesday, March 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke) 

A pedestrian removes a protective mask worn as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus in Philadelphia, Wednesday, March 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke) 

The answer seems clear—the CDC bent to political pressure from the Biden administration.

Since the Omicron peak, opinion pages have increasingly challenged the CDC’s overly restrictive recommendations. State after state ended their own mandates as COVID cases subsided and as the public’s trust—and practices—grew increasingly out of step with CDC guidance.

Last Friday, only seven states maintained mask mandates, while over half of public school students attended mask optional schools. If the CDC was confident that 70 percent of the public need not wear masks, why did it wait so much longer than states did to announce this? And why in a late Friday news dump? If school specific masking requirements were unnecessary, why keep blanket school recommendations for so long?

The reason it happened on Friday is clear. The announcement paved the way for President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address.

Under the new guidance, President Biden was able to enter the House chamber unmasked and trumpet that “Under these new guidelines, most Americans in most of the country can now be mask free… COVID-19 need no longer control our lives.” Regarding schools, Biden shrugged off indifference evident one week prior to say, “Most Americans can remove their masks and stay in the classroom, and move forward safely.”

This timing seems more than just convenient. In mid-February, NBC reported, senior White House officials asked CDC Director Rochelle Walensky to update the mask guidance prior to the State of the Union. NBC noted, “The White House has been eager for the CDC to provide an update on its indoor mask recommendation, although it wants the agency to get it right, and it doesn’t want to appear as though it is putting political pressure on the agency.”

U.S. President Joe Biden pauses while speaking during a State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, March 1, 2022. Biden's first State of the Union address comes against the backdrop of Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent sanctions placed on Russia by the U.S. and its allies. Photographer: Saul Loeb/AFP/Bloomberg via Getty Images

U.S. President Joe Biden pauses while speaking during a State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, March 1, 2022. Biden’s first State of the Union address comes against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent sanctions placed on Russia by the U.S. and its allies. Photographer: Saul Loeb/AFP/Bloomberg via Getty Images
(Saul Loeb/AFP/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

On this count, the administration failed spectacularly. CDC’s timing appears to be motivated by political expediency and little else. After all, no new scientific breakthroughs or studies spurred this change. And while the new guidance does use better data—adding county COVID-19 hospitalizations and hospital bed occupancy data to the COVID-19 case rate data—that data has been available for months. The only “pressure on the agency” that explains the timing of Friday’s announcement is political pressure.

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Potential interference from the administration is a profound concern. It undermines the already fragile trust the public has in the CDC as an independent scientific agency. The CDC’s failure to act before now also points to significant failings within it, raising another question: How much longer might the CDC have waited if not for pressure from the State of the Union?

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In light of such glaring circumstantial evidence, Congress should investigate whether the Biden administration put pressure on the CDC. They can start by requesting early drafts of the State of Union to determine whether the administration anticipated the CDC announcement. If so, Congress should probe into their role in that decision. If the CDC’s change was merely a happy coincidence for Biden’s address, Congress should hold the CDC to account for delaying guidance that affects the lives of millions of American schoolchildren. Congress not only has the prerogative, but the responsibility to investigate.

Tracey Schirra is a research associate at the American Enterprise Institute.

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