As soon as Americans thought they were done worrying about COVID-19 and mask mandates, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hit them with a new health scare — the rare monkeypox virus.
For nearly a week, the CDC had been recommending travelers wear face masks due to the emerging threat of monkeypox, despite monkeypox being transmitted mostly through sexual contact.
But by Tuesday morning, the mask recommendation was scrubbed from the website. A CDC spokesperson told the Washington Times the advice to don a mask while traveling was removed because it had “caused confusion.”
It also added to Americans’ skepticism about the CDC after years of lockdowns, mandates and alarmist rhetoric offered up by the public health agency since the pandemic began in March 2020.
“It’s been a long two years,” National Academy for State Health Policy Executive Director Hemi Tewarson told The Times. “And I think the public appetite for this as an emergency situation — that we need to close things down, require masks, require vaccinations — has faded.”
Indeed, cheers erupted from airports and airplanes on April 18, when a federal judge struck down the Biden administration’s COVID-19 mask mandate for public transportation. The mandate had been repeatedly extended at the recommendation of the CDC.
While face masks on long flights are becoming a distant and unpleasant memory, the Biden administration, acting again on the CDC’s recommendation, is fighting in federal court to overturn the ruling, which would pave the way for reimposing the mask mandate.
The Biden administration has suggested that the court case is about defending the CDC’s legal authority to impose public health measures, not necessarily about reimposing mask mandates immediately.
However, the CDC continues to recommend anyone aged 2 and older wear a mask “in indoor areas of public transportation,” including airplanes and airports.
Polling shows that the public has grown weary of coronavirus mandates.
Gallup, in a survey released on May 11, found fewer than one in three adults are “very” or “somewhat worried” about getting the virus.
“Americans’ current worry level is the lowest Gallup has recorded since July 2021,” Gallup analyst Justin McCarthy wrote.
The poll found fewer people social distancing, with 53% reporting they were not taking any steps to isolate themselves from others, and 50% reported wearing masks, the lowest level since April 2020, when the CDC first began recommending face coverings.
In other words, cases are on the rise, but public concern about COVID-19 is decreasing.
Johns Hopkins University, which tracks COVID-19, reported more than 120,000 new cases on Monday, but so far, hospitalizations and deaths have remained low and the big number isn’t making it into the headlines.
The administration touts the vaccine as the reason for lower deaths and hospitalization rates.
Nearly two-thirds of the U.S. population is vaccinated.
“As a result, when we look across the country and we see cases rising — nearly 100,000 cases a day, and yet we’re still seeing death numbers that are about 90 percent lower than where they were when the President first took office,” White House Covid-19 Response Coordinator Ashish Jha told reporters last week.
The CDC first promised the vaccine would stop the spread of the virus but that quickly proved to be untrue as thousands of people contracted COVID-19 despite receiving the initial two shots and boosters.
Widespread fatigue from and distrust of COVID-19 rules prompted states to back down on ambitious vaccine mandates for students and workers.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, for example, announced in October 2021 that the state would require students to be vaccinated against COVID-19 but in April announced he’d delay the requirement until at least the summer of 2023.
Other states, including Oregon, lifted vaccine requirements for state workers, while New York state in March backed off requiring health care workers to receive COVID-19 booster shots.
The monkeypox virus had previously spread in only a handful of Central and West African countries. Then it showed up in Europe and the U.S. in late May.
The CDC reported 31 monkeypox cases in the U.S. as of June 6 and more than 1,000 cases globally. The agency elevated the threat from the virus to “Alert – level 2 – Practice Enhanced Precautions.” The level 2 alert is one step lower than a CDC advisory to avoid non-essential travel.
Monkeypox has been reported in 13 states, with most states reporting just one case.
The CDC is closely monitoring the virus and has set up a web page tracking U.S. cases. The agency is warning health care providers to look out for the virus “regardless of whether they have travel or specific risk factors for monkeypox and regardless of gender or sexual orientation.”
The monkeypox mask reversal, coupled with two years of mixed messaging about vaccines and COVID mask safety, could make it harder for a wary public to listen to the CDC in the event the virus spreads more widely.
“I do think consistent messaging and rebuilding public trust, whether it’s monkeypox or anything else, is going to be important,” Ms. Tewarson said. “To to get people to believe again.”
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