CDC director defends mask guidance: 'This weighed heavily on me'

CDC director defends mask guidance: 'This weighed heavily on me'
© Greg Nash

The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said the decision to update federal guidance on mask wearing was not easy to make, but a move the agency deemed necessary in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“This was not news that I expected the American people to welcome. This weighed heavily on me to have to do this,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said during an appearance on Fox News on Friday. “I have no interest in continuing mask guidance, and the best way to stop a new variant from spreading is to have less virus out there and the best way to do that is to get people vaccinated and to mask up until they are.”

The CDC announced its new guidance on Tuesday, recommending that all Americans — regardless of vaccination status — wear masks in crowded indoor environments in certain areas of the country where the delta variant of the coronavirus has caused a substantial rise in infections.

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The delta variant, which public health officials say is responsible for the majority of new coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths among mainly the unvaccinated, is now the dominant strain of the virus in the United States. 

The CDC's latest guidance has triggered pushback from critics of mask wearing, while some outside health experts have also urged the agency to clarify its messaging on masks and vaccine efficacy.

A number of Republican governors came out against the CDC's updated guidance on face coverings this week and signaled they would not push for a return of masking.

Late on Friday, Walensky clarified separate comments she made on Fox suggesting the Biden administration was looking into a mandate for all people to get vaccinated in the United States. 

“There will be no nationwide mandate. I was referring to mandates by private institutions and portions of the federal government. There will be no federal mandate,” Walensky tweeted after initially saying the administration was "looking into" a nationwide vaccine mandate.

Biden has instituted a mandate for all civilian federal employees to either prove they have been vaccinated or undergo regular testing and wear a mask while on the job. The military said that its personnel would also face such requirements.

Some localities and large cities like Washington, D.C., have either instituted a mask mandate for people while indoors regardless of vaccination status or announced that government employees and healthcare workers must prove they are vaccinated as a condition of their employment.