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White House struggles to get message straight in wake of new CDC guidance

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The Biden administration has been forced in recent days to walk back statements about the possibility of instituting a national COVID-19 vaccine mandate, as well as the re-imposition of lockdowns due to a surge in cases caused by the Delta variant.

While the White House has endorsed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s revised recommendations of indoor mask mandates in places where there is “substantial” or “high” levels of coronavirus transmission, the backslide has led critics to wonder whether more drastic action is possible.

Many have also accused the administration of undermining its own insistence on the effectiveness of vaccines by backing mask-wearing regardless of vaccination status. They also point out that despite the White House ordering staffers to wear masks following the CDC’s recommendation, neither President Joe Biden nor White House press secretary Jen Psaki wear them when making statements to the media.

On Thursday, President Joe Biden announced that federal employees must either get vaccinated or undergo regular coronavirus testing and practice social distancing at work. Following the announcement, the president was asked whether he would push for states, school districts and private companies to impose their own vaccine requirements.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki has not been wearing a mask during media briefings.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki has not been wearing a mask during media briefings.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

“Well, I — I’d like to see them continue to move in that direction, and that’s why I point it out,” Biden responded. “I had asked the Justice Department to determine whether that is — they’re able to do that legally, and they can. Local communities can do that. Local businesses can do that.

Biden then added: “It’s still a question whether the federal government can mandate the whole country. I don’t know that yet.”

In an interview with CNN Thursday night, White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Jeffrey Zients was forced to deny that the administration was looking at a nationwide mandate.

COVID-19 Response Coordinator Jeff Zients answers questions during a news conference in April.
COVID-19 Response Coordinator Jeff Zients answers questions during a news conference in April.
Leigh Vogel/Pool/Sipa USA

“That’s not an authority that we’re exploring at all,” Zients said. “But I think what the president was referring to is, his Justice Department has said that it is legal for employers to require vaccination.”

White House Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was forced into a similar U-turn Thursday after she responded to a question about lockdowns from Fox News White House correspondent Peter Doocy.

“If scientists come to you at some point down the line and say, ‘It is our opinion that there should be shutdowns and there should be school closures,’ you would do that?” Doocy asked.

A person gets a PCR COVID-19 test by nurse Stefanie Sampson on Tuesday at the Children's Services of Roxbury in Boston on Feb. 23, 2021
Federal employees will either have to get vaccinated or undergo regular COVID testing.
Boston Globe via Getty Images

“Well, like I said, we listen to the CDC, and the experts and their guidance,” Jean-Pierre answered. “You know, our — the CDC is a body that is very well-respected, and we follow — again, we follow their guidance.”

Hours after the briefing, Jean-Pierre tweeted: “We will not be going back into lockdowns. Why? Because we now have the tools to put this virus behind us. The science says the vaccines work – including against the Delta variant. We urge Americans to get vaccinated.”

On Friday, Jean-Pierre was asked by Kelly O’Donnell of NBC News why the White House COVID-19 response team of Zients, chief White House medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky and Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy had not held a joint press briefing since July 22.

“I would argue that we had the president of the United States speak to this yesterday,” Jean-Pierre responded about Biden remarks on Thursday. “He gave a more than 30-minute speech about where we are as a country. I mean, he is a trusted voice. He is the leader of our country.”

Unvaccinated Americans account for over 99 percent of COVID-related deaths.
Unvaccinated Americans account for over 99 percent of COVID-related deaths.
Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/Shutte

“But he’s not a scientist,” O’Donnell interjected.

“No, but we heard from him, right?” Jean-Pierre answered. “We heard from the president yesterday. We heard from the president about the Delta variant and vaccinations in general the day before yesterday when he was in Pennsylvania … he led off talking about the vaccinations. We have had our doctors on your networks, on many of the networks that are here … talking about the Delta variant all throughout these last couple of days. So, they have been out there, they have been talking about it and yeah, we heard directly from Dr. Walensky herself.

“So, this is something that we’re going to continue to do,” the spokesperson added. “We’re gonna continue to make sure that we communicate directly with the American people and also work hand-in-hand with local governments and state governments as well.”



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