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Masks on. Masks off. Masks on again at the White House as Delta threat grows

Joe Biden, in suit and aviator sunglasses, holds a mask.
President Biden holds a mask after landing in Pennsylvania on Wednesday. His administration is recommending masks in areas where the coronavirus is surging.
(Susan Walsh / Associated Press)

A little more than two months ago, a beaming President Biden stepped into the Rose Garden to announce that vaccinated Americans no longer needed to wear masks indoors. So much progress had been made against the coronavirus, now they could go back to “greeting others with a smile.”

But anyone smiling inside the White House on Wednesday was supposed to do it once again from behind a mask.

The requirement was back after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said new research showed even vaccinated people could transmit, in rare cases, the more contagious Delta variant.

Reporters and photographers wore masks. Members of the press office wore masks. Biden did too — he was photographed with a mask while talking with an opposition leader from Belarus before leaving for a trip to Pennsylvania.

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The CDC recommends that even vaccinated people wear masks indoors in parts of the U.S. where the coronavirus is surging.

Vice President Kamala Harris got a head start the day before, wearing a mask during a meeting with Native American leaders. An aide passed out masks to any journalists who had already fallen out of the habit of keeping one handy.

Unlike when Donald Trump was president, and his administration disregarded public health guidelines, this White House has been a barometer for how federal officials say Americans should protect themselves from the coronavirus.

Now it’s a high-profile showcase for the country’s faltering efforts to end the pandemic as the Delta variant tears through unvaccinated communities, and infections approach levels last seen this spring, before shots were widely available.

With large swaths of the country still vulnerable to the coronavirus, health officials are once again recommending masking to slow the spread. Biden is expected to announce Thursday that federal workers will be required to get vaccinated or submit to regular testing, his latest attempt to overcome millions of Americans’ reluctance or refusal to get inoculated.

He described the CDC guidelines Tuesday as “another step on our journey to defeating this virus.”

If it’s a journey, it’s a frustrating one that requires backtracking at times. Administration officials acknowledged that the guidelines were unwelcome news, particularly for people who have gotten their shots and watched hospitals fill up again because others will not. Masks are a visible sign that the country is not experiencing the “summer of joy” that Biden predicted last month, nor is it celebrating its “independence from a deadly virus.”

At a gleaming table beneath chandeliers, people in masks sit for a meeting.
Vice President Kamala Harris, center, and others wear masks during a meeting at the White House complex on Tuesday.
(Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated Press)
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Biden made his personal adherence to public health recommendations a cornerstone of last year’s campaign to defeat Trump, and he publicly embraced the guidelines.

“I hope all Americans who live in the areas covered by the CDC guidance will follow it,” Biden said. “I certainly will when I travel to these areas.”

Like many of his fellow citizens, however, he doesn’t seem to want to wear a mask any longer than necessary. He had one on while disembarking Air Force One in Pennsylvania on Wednesday, but he peeled it off immediately after he stepped off the plane.

Biden also doesn’t need to travel to be affected by the guidelines. As of this week, Washington, D.C., again meets the threshold to be considered a place with “substantial” spread of the coronavirus, meaning an average of 50 new cases per 100,000 people over a seven-day period.

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Under the CDC recommendations, that means people should wear masks indoors in public settings including offices and businesses. So once again, there are signs outside the West Wing reminding people to wear masks when they step inside, even if they’re vaccinated.

Anyone outdoors was exempt from the requirement, but the summer heat made that option unbearable in its own way.

The situation was more confusing on Capitol Hill, where officials made separate recommendations for the House and the Senate. Although House members and staff were directed to wear masks in public spaces, including the House chamber, senators and their staff were merely encouraged to wear masks.

No explanation was given for the divergent guidelines, but vaccinations are more widespread in the Senate than in the House.

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Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC director, said the recent masking guidelines were released because of new research that showed the Delta variant, which is responsible for the vast majority of the country’s infections, behaves differently from previous versions of the coronavirus.

If someone suffers a rare breakthrough case from the variant, they can carry as much virus as someone who is unvaccinated, meaning they could be contagious and dangerous to others, even if they have mild symptoms or don’t realize they’re infected.

Vaccines remain effective at preventing serious illness from the coronavirus, even when the Delta variant is involved, and the White House is straining to convince more Americans to get their shots. Just under 70% of adults have received at least one dose of a vaccine, meaning the country has yet to reach the target that Biden hoped to meet by July 4.

Biden plans to announce more steps to spur vaccinations on Thursday. After speaking to the intelligence community on Tuesday, he said he was considering requiring federal workers and contractors to get inoculated or submit to regular testing.

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If more people got their shots, Biden said, “we’d be in a very different world.” Turning to the audience of intelligence officials he had just praised in his speech, he said: “If you’re not vaccinated, you’re not nearly as smart as I said you were.”

Times staff writer Sarah D. Wire contributed to this report.


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