The Hill

Biden administration officials are discussing the potential for tougher guidelines to blunt the nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases, but the White House will have to weigh how new measures might affect its overall vaccination push.

The rise in infections around the country has sparked calls from some health experts to reimpose stricter masking guidance and other efforts designed to slow the spread of the virus. Doing so would likely set off criticism from conservatives and spark enforcement issues, as some Republican governors have vowed not to return to restrictions on businesses.

White House officials — wary of any appearance that they are politicizing health guidelines — have been adamant that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will have the final say on whether new guidance is needed.

“It would be actually surprising and odd if our health and medical experts were not having an active discussion about how to best protect the American people. And there is of course an active discussion about a range of steps that can be taken, as there has been from the first day of this administration,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday.

“Certainly the surge in cases among the unvaccinated because of the delta variant prompts even more discussion about what actions can be taken,” Psaki added. “But we are going to — the CDC looks at data. They look at data across the country … and if they make an assessment, we will of course be here to follow their guidance.”

Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s top medical adviser on the pandemic, told CNN on Sunday that recommending vaccinated Americans resume wearing masks in some settings is “under active consideration.”

Fauci and other medical experts are part of those discussions, with Biden receiving regular briefings.

Asked Monday if the president supports restrictions for unvaccinated people in public settings such as restaurants and museums, Psaki reiterated that the White House will follow the CDC’s lead.

But some localities aren’t waiting to take their cues from Washington.

Los Angeles County and St. Louis recently announced new mask mandates, even for vaccinated individuals who are indoors. New Orleans issued an advisory encouraging the use of masks when indoors, and several other municipalities have gone similar routes.

The country’s seven-day average of new cases is a fraction of what it was during the January peak now that 188 million Americans have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine. But that same average has risen by almost 40,000 since earlier this month. Tens of millions of Americans have not gotten vaccinated, and health experts said the highly transmissible delta variant is likely to accelerate case counts.

The administration and some health officials have used the July spike to emphasize the importance of getting vaccinated, pointing to statistics that show nearly all hospitalizations involve unvaccinated individuals.

On Sunday, close to 500,000 people received their first vaccine dose, Psaki said, and a handful of states with low vaccination rates have seen their numbers pick up in recent days as fears of the delta variant prompt more Americans to roll up their sleeves.

Still, some health experts have called for stronger guidance from the CDC to avoid a full-blown wave of new cases while officials work to persuade a large swath of the population to get the shot.

“A number of months ago, the CDC recommended that people who are fully vaccinated didn’t have to mask or distance. At the time, I thought it was a catastrophic situation, and it’s proven to be catastrophic,” said Larry Gostin, a global health law professor at Georgetown University.

Leana Wen, a physician and visiting professor at George Washington University, argued in a Washington Post op-ed last week that the CDC should revise its guidance to say vaccinated individuals should wear masks unless they are surrounded only by others who are vaccinated.

Wen acknowledged areas with low vaccination rates are unlikely to heed new mask guidance or other restrictions.

“Still, leadership from the Biden administration can make a difference. There are many businesses and local jurisdictions that look to the federal government for direction,” she wrote.

The politics surrounding any update to masking guidance or capacity restrictions make it unlikely that major changes are imminent, however. Republicans are unlikely to comply with federal guidance that could cap large events or require masks indoors, particularly in states where governors are looking to remain popular with their conservative base ahead of 2024.

Additionally, if Americans are told to wear a mask indoors even if they’re vaccinated, many experts worry that it will take away a major incentive for some reluctant individuals to get the shot.

But the potential for 2020-style restrictions is likely to draw concerns from Democrats and Republicans alike. Leaders in both parties who are up for reelection next year may be hesitant to support any steps that hamper local economies.

“You are seeing some individuals in the Biden administration pushing for more restrictive measures again, and I think that is something that would make people feel better but not make a material difference,” said one former Trump administration health official.

The former official predicted the U.S. will soon see its daily case count climb toward 100,000 new infections as the highly delta variant spreads, particularly among unvaccinated populations. But they argued that cases aren’t the most important metric when deciding on new restrictions.

“What matters is health systems being overwhelmed,” the former official said. “If you go back to the beginning of the pandemic, the entire premise of mitigation measures was about making sure health systems didn’t get overrun. … If people focus on those, you shouldn’t see meaningful lockdowns going forward.”

Morgan Chalfant contributed to this report.

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Fully jabbed from EU and US could avoid quarantine

By Joseph Lee & Francesca Gillett
BBC News

Woman arriving at Heathrowimage copyrightGetty Images

Senior cabinet ministers are to discuss allowing fully vaccinated travellers from the EU and US to avoid quarantine when they arrive in England.

A review of the border rules is due by 31 July – the second date in the Department for Transport’s plan for a safe return to international travel.

Sources said the isolation exemption was likely to be discussed at the Covid Operations meeting on Wednesday.

But they said a decision on whether to proceed will not necessarily be taken.

Currently, people who have been fully vaccinated in the UK do not have to quarantine when travelling from the US and EU because those places are on the amber list (and some EU countries are on the green list). But that exemption does not apply to people who have been vaccinated outside the UK.

Downing Street and the Department for Transport declined to comment on newspaper reports the government would go ahead with the plan to also exempt people vaccinated in the US and EU.

The travel industry has been pushing for this change in the rules so that people living abroad such as expats and tourists can more easily come to the UK for holidays or to visit loved ones.

“At the moment we’re in this slightly ridiculous situation where if I’m on a plane from Spain, because I’m lucky enough to have had two jabs, once we get to the UK I just wander off, no problem,” said travel expert Simon Calder.

“But the person sitting next to me, who happens to have had their vaccinations in Spain, not in the UK, has to go and sit in a room for 10 days. Doesn’t make sense.”

The aviation industry are calling for a change after carrying out a 10-day trial of checking the vaccination status of passengers.

British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Heathrow Airport wanted to demonstrate that vaccination status could be checked away from the border and allow safe entry to the UK from countries on the amber list.

The companies said 99% of documents were verified correctly during the trial, which involved about 250 fully-vaccinated participants from the US, the Caribbean and Europe, travelling to Heathrow.

Two passengers had their credentials rejected, the companies said: one because their vaccination was completed less than 14 days before travel, and the other because of a discrepancy between the name on the passport and on the vaccine card.

‘No reason to delay’

The travel industry has criticised the “frustrating” traffic light system for hindering its recovery. British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Heathrow Airport said the UK was falling behind the EU in opening up to international travellers.

BA chief executive Sean Doyle said the trial provides the evidence that the government needs to allow fully vaccinated visitors from low-risk countries to come to the UK without self-isolating.

Heathrow boss John Holland-Kaye said there was “no reason to delay with rolling out the solution from July 31”, while Virgin Atlantic boss Shai Weiss said the UK’s current “overly cautious approach” would harm its economic recovery and put half a million jobs at risk.

EasyJet told LBC such a change was “the right thing” but a “little bit too late”.

But even if the UK changed its rules, US citizens have been urged not to travel to the UK by the country’s health protection agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And the US border is currently closed to the UK, as well as many other countries, except for US citizens.

The UK and US have set up a taskforce to discuss a travel corridor, although earlier this week the White House said it had no plans to lift Covid-19 travel restrictions for non-Americans.

Boris Johnson told LBC on Wednesday that “we’re talking to them the whole time”.

The EU has encouraged its members to gradually lift travel restrictions for the UK, and each country has its own rules.

Under current rules, other countries are granted a “traffic light” status for arrivals – red, amber or green.

The vast majority of countries, including the US and many European countries including Spain, Italy and Germany, are on the amber list.

Adults who have been fully vaccinated in the UK, and under-18s who are UK residents, no longer have to self-isolate after visiting any amber country apart from France. But anyone who was fully vaccinated outside the UK still has to quarantine for 10 days on arrival, or pay for the test-to-release scheme to shorten their quarantine.

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WORLD STATS

COVID-19 CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC
Last updated: July 28, 2021, 08:44 GMT

Coronavirus Cases:

196,033,360

Deaths:

4,194,208

Recovered:

177,717,747
Highlighted in green
= all cases have recovered from the infection
Highlighted in grey
= all cases have had an outcome (there are no active cases)

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