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CDC's about-face on masks appears politically motivated to help a struggling Biden

CDC's about-face on masks appears politically motivated to help a struggling Biden
© Greg Nash

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) decision to lift mask restrictions on those vaccinated for COVID-19 is being hailed as "a great day for America" by President Biden, while The Atlantic says the new guidelines "follow the science."

But does it follow the increasingly less impactful words of Anthony FauciAnthony FauciOvernight Health Care: US surpasses 600K COVID-19 deaths | Federal watchdog to examine NIH grants, likely including Wuhan funding CDC labels highly transmissible delta strain a COVID-19 'variant of concern' Federal watchdog to examine NIH grants, likely including Wuhan funding MORE, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases? Fauci told CNN earlier this spring that restrictions should not be considered until the U.S. dips below 10,000 cases per day. 

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According to the CDC, the seven-day rolling average of new COVID-19 cases in the U.S. is about 35,000, while the same source shows an average of 592 deaths per day. In other words, we're nowhere near the number of daily cases at which Fauci himself says we need to be.

"I think this is a very important step in the direction to get back to some degree of normality," Fauci told CNN on Friday after the new guidelines were announced. The head of the coronavirus task force was not asked about the original 10,000-case threshold, nor did he make any mention of it. 

After multiple opinions on masks (no masks, one mask, two masks, masks until we're below 10,000 cases), we're certainly a long way from the following headlines from one year ago, aren't we?

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"Dr. Anthony Fauci and Andrew CuomoAndrew CuomoPuerto Rico's former governor stages a comeback New York hits 70 percent vaccination goal, lifts COVID-19 restrictions Hundreds of people given expired vaccine doses in Times Square MORE remain the most trusted leaders on coronavirus, while Donald TrumpDonald TrumpKushner lands book deal, slated for release in 2022 Biden moves to undo Trump trade legacy with EU deal Progressives rave over Harrison's start at DNC MORE and Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerKushner lands book deal, slated for release in 2022 The Israel-Hamas ceasefire is holding — what's next? Eric Trump buys .2M home near father's golf club in Florida MORE are the least trusted" — Business Insider

Statements by Fauci and CDC Director Rochelle WalenskyRochelle WalenskyStudy: Older Americans saw larger declines in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths after vaccine became available Overnight Health Care: Biden 'very confident' in Fauci amid conservative attacks | House Dems press Biden on global vaccinations | CDC director urges parents to vaccinate adolescents New York plans to loosen school mask rules as soon as Monday MORE make the timing of this announcement worthy of scrutiny.

We were also told earlier this month by Walensky that kids aged 2 and up had to wear masks at outdoor camps over the summer. So, we've gone from that utterly ridiculous (and cruel) advice to, essentially, "Take your masks off and party like it's 2019!" in the span of two weeks. 

So, what’s going on here? Could this decision by the CDC and fully supported by the Biden administration — whose members have sported masks outdoors and otherwise for months while fully vaccinated — have something to do with politics?

Of course it does because it's safe to say that the post-honeymoon stage for the new president is going excessively poorly.

The bad times began after a devastating jobs report to kick off the month, with the 266,000 jobs added falling 735,000 short of expectations. But a large reason around the “why” of the historic miss is something Team Biden has no answer for. The Washington Post reports that the average unemployment payment in New York is now $33,540 a year. In North Dakota, where the cost of living is much lower, one could collect $36,764. In New Jersey, $37,388. In Washington State, $41,444.

For young adults working entry-level jobs, what incentive is there to work when they're earning more not to? That’s created horrible optics for the administration, with small businesses loudly complaining in daily TV interviews that they can't hire the personnel they desperately need to function. 

The gas crisis in several East Coast states as a result of a key pipeline being hacked by a criminal extortion ring also looks bad for Biden. It brings about inevitable comparisons to a doomed President Carter, who in 1979 was also dealing with an explosive situation in the Middle East that ultimately — along with a struggling economy complete with long gas lines featured nightly on the evening news — ended his presidency.  

Part of Carter's awful economy was also soaring inflation, something no administration can spin itself out of since it impacts every American in terms of goods (gas, food, lumber) and services (borrowing money, mortgages, government bond yields, etc.). This too appears to be looming as a huge headache for Biden, who inherited vaccines to defeat COVID-19 and an economy that was roaring back. 

Throw in the crisis at the border, where illegal crossings were higher in April than at any other time in the past 20 years, and you have a president who is facing multiple issues that he cannot blame his predecessor for (try as he might).  

Outside of COVID-19, which without the vaccines courtesy of Operation Warp Speed would still be a dire situation, if India is any indication, things have gone south on several key fronts for the 46th president. That begs the question, why did the CDC and the Biden coronavirus task force so abruptly change their tune on COVID-19, on masks, on children outdoors with masks? 

"I used to have the utmost respect for the guidance from the CDC," moderate Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsOvernight Energy: Schumer to trigger reconciliation process Wednesday | Bipartisan bill would ban 'forever chemicals' in cosmetics | Biden admin eyes step toward Trump-era proposal for uranium reserve Bipartisan lawmakers introduce bill to ban 'forever chemicals' in cosmetics as study finds them prevalent Cosmetic chemicals need a makeover MORE (R-Maine) candidly told Walensky at a congressional hearing this week while citing the CDC's flip-flopping on everything from school reopenings to mask wearing. "I always considered the CDC to be the gold standard. I don't anymore." 

She's not alone: Just 52 percent of Americans have a great deal of confidence in the CDC, according to a recent survey by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. For context, FiveThirtyEight's polling at the beginning of the pandemic (March and April 2020) showed the CDC polling in the 80s. That's a precipitous drop. 

Cases and deaths are down sharply from the beginning of the year. That's great. But the CDC's move appears to be a politically timed one. And it likely explains why its numbers are falling quickly as well. 

Joe Concha is a media and politics columnist for The Hill.