Jen Psaki pressed at briefing about COVID confusion, if Biden is 'falling behind' on return to normalcy

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Reporters questioned White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki Wednesday over the confusion Americans are feeling over COVID-19 mandates, and why the Biden administration appears to be one step behind as more states seem ready to return to normalcy.

The White House has for weeks emphasized the importance of masking and encouraged Americans to order their masks to protect themselves against the virus. Yet in recent days several blue states have scaled back indoor mask mandates, flouting Biden administration guidelines.

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“Can you blame Americans for being confused and frustrated and having no idea who they should be listening to right now?” ABC’s Cecilia Vega asked. 

“Our guidance has consistently been this,” Psaki said. “When you are in a high-transmission are, which is everywhere in the country, you should wear a mask in indoor settings, including schools.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki speaks at a press briefing at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

White House press secretary Jen Psaki speaks at a press briefing at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

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Vega followed up for an answer on what the White House plans to do about clearing up matters for Americans who are “confused.”

“I think we should do everything we can to prevent them from being from confused,” Psaki replied. “So I’m restating what our policy is here from the federal government, which is based on public health guidance.” 

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky appeared to distance herself from states who have decided to scale back school mask measures, saying “now is not the moment” to get rid of them. Vega asked Psaki about that discrepancy, wondering if the agency was becoming “irrelevant” as the states move at a faster pace in the return to normalcy. Psaki maintained the CDC was still relevant, considering the country was still in the middle of a pandemic. 

Rochelle Walensky, Director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), speaks during a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022. Photographer: Shawn Thew/EPA/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Rochelle Walensky, Director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), speaks during a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022. Photographer: Shawn Thew/EPA/Bloomberg via Getty Images
(Photographer: Shawn Thew/EPA/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The Associated Press’s Aamer Madhani also questioned the administration’s approach, telling Psaki that several states are now “well ahead” of the federal government in terms of explaining the path out of the pandemic. Madhani asked Psaki if the president was “falling behind.” 

Psaki referred Madhani to comments Biden made two weeks ago at his solo press conference, when he told Americans the country is “moving toward” a return to normal life.

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Republican governors such as Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin have enacted mask mandate bans in schools. But blue state governors like New Jersey’s Phil Murphy, D., and New York’s Kathy Hochul, D., have announced similar measures. Murphy’s order doesn’t ban mask mandates but will lift the order statewide, while Hochul announced Wednesday she would be dropping the state’s indoor mask mandate, while the school order would remain.

Louisville Schools Open For In-Person Learning LOUISVILLE, KY - MARCH 17: A teacher walks among the masked students sitting in a socially distanced classroom session at Medora Elementary School on March 17, 2021 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

Louisville Schools Open For In-Person Learning LOUISVILLE, KY – MARCH 17: A teacher walks among the masked students sitting in a socially distanced classroom session at Medora Elementary School on March 17, 2021 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Nowhere has the debate over masking appeared to be so acute than in schools. Health experts like former Acting CDC Director Dr. Richard Besser have remarked on how masking and school closures have negatively impacted children’s growth and mental health.

“As a pediatrician, there are a couple of things that I keep in mind,” he said. “One is the desire to reduce as much as possible the burden from omicron. And thankfully, young children are at the lowest risk for severe infection for hospitalization and for death. They’re not at zero risk, but they’re at very low risk. But you have to balance the measures that we’re asking children and families to do to prevent omicron against some of those costs. And the costs are real.” 

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