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The White House seems to be playing catch-up on coronavirus messaging

The Biden team has struggled to respond to the evolving pandemic dynamic, and to abrupt policy directives from public health officials within the administration itself.
Image: After CDC Revises Mask Recommendations, White House Mandates Use
Fin Gomez, a CBS News journalist and White House Correspondents' Association board member, replaces signs for mask-wearing guidance around the James Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House on Tuesday.Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden found out about a significant move by his public health officials this week — one that created the most visible symbol yet of his setback in the battle against Covid-19 — around the same time the news was breaking on cable television.

The Tuesday afternoon timing of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's official recommendation that individuals who are vaccinated might need to wear masks in some areas left White House press secretary Jen Psaki, who had repeatedly insisted in recent days that they did not, as the first public official to face questions on a policy shift White House officials had only recently learned of themselves.

"We are always going to be guided by our North Star, and that is the CDC and our health and medical experts," she said in response to a crush of questions Monday, as rumors swirled ahead of the official announcement.

Throughout the White House, the swift policy change caught staffers by surprise, but the dynamic was far from unfamiliar: Since Biden took office, much of the decision-making and messaging around pandemic policy has been in the hands of public health officials, not politicians.

The hands-off approach has at times left his White House scrambling to find its footing in the wake of some of the agency's most consequential moves.

It's a stark reversal from the Trump administration, which was accused by some members of its own coronavirus task force of interfering in public health decisions and releasing false information that contradicted the messaging from CDC officials.

But it's an approach that has come with its own set of drawbacks.

It has fallen on the White House to deal with the aftermath of confusing messages out of the agency on whether schools can reopen if teachers aren't vaccinated or if it's safe for vaccinated people to travel.

When peppered with questions about why restrictions are still in place for travel to many countries, a decision that has frustrated the tourism industry and Americans with family abroad, the White House has deferred to its public health officials, who haven't provided a clear rationale.

Now, medical experts say this week's announcement that vaccinated people might need to put their masks back on has suffered from the same lack of clear, unified messaging that plagued the spring guidance that they could take them off — leading to a similar swell of public confusion.

"This has been a consistent problem with the CDC," said Dr. Leana Wen, a former Baltimore health commissioner. "The same thing happens back in May, where they got the science right but the policy and communications really confused. And that directly led to where we are today."

While the CDC and West Wing are in near-daily contact, administration officials said the timing of the mask announcement was driven by the agency.

“We are dealing with a constantly changing virus, evolving and mutating and generating new threats," one official said. "When that happened in 2020, politics and preferred messaging trumped public health, with a president who buried his head in the sand at best and overruled or contradicted public health leaders at worst. The science is the science, and thank God we follow it because lives are at stake here."

But so, perhaps, is Biden's presidency. The gap between White House hopes and the CDC's hard reality has come into especially sharp relief over the course of the past week, as a cascade of events have left the “summer of freedom” Biden predicted in June, and potentially his wider agenda, increasingly under threat.

Covid cases have spiked due to the rapidly spreading delta variant. New data indicates that even vaccinated people may be able to spread the virus. The number of new daily vaccine doses delivered has plateaued at levels far below spring highs.

And the virus's continued threat has hit home for Biden in recent days, with infections in a fully vaccinated White House staffer, an aide to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a group of Texas state representatives who visited with Vice President Kamala Harris.

During a presidential trip to Pennsylvania on Tuesday, White House officials found themselves trying to determine if the Mack Trucks plant he was touring was in a "yellow zone," which would allow him to remain mask-free, or an "orange zone," which would have required him to don a face covering in public for the first time in two months.

(A CDC map with county-level data based on weekly averages from three days ago indicated it was yellow, though the neighboring county was orange.)

Back in Washington, the White House was nearing the end of a month that began with an "independence from the virus" bash with a far more subdued tone.

Just over an hour after the CDC’s mask announcement on Tuesday, a White House aide began handing out masks to reporters planning to cover an event with the vice president, telling them that Washington now fell into the category of “substantial” risk areas where the CDC advised mask use.

At the event, Harris sounded a frustrated note.

"Nobody likes wearing a mask," she said. "Get vaccinated."

By the end of the day, the entire West Wing was again masked — including the president.

The abrupt policy directives from public health officials within the administration have left the White House visibly struggling with how to respond to the evolving dynamic around the pandemic.

"It is really a challenge, because of course we want to support the CDC, and you don’t want people to lose trust in the CDC," Wen said. "But it makes our job as public health leaders much harder, because we are now trying to defend a message from the CDC that is convoluted and confusing."

In the absence of a coordinated administration push on mask guidance changes this week, Republicans quickly moved to fill the void, calling the announcement an overreaction, government overreach and a politically driven move.

"Don’t surrender to COVID. Don’t go back! Why do Democrats distrust the science?" said former President Donald Trump, who usually refused to wear a mask even before he was vaccinated, in a statement to supporters. "Don’t let this happen to our children or our Country."

The public marks for Biden's handling of the pandemic have dipped just slightly since May to 59 percent approving of the job he is doing and 35 percent disapproving, according to the FiveThirtyEight polling average.

But the rise in Covid cases in recent weeks has appeared to contribute to a rising pessimism among Americans, according to a recent ABC News/Ipsos poll, which found 55 percent of Americans saying they’re pessimistic about the year ahead, versus 45 percent who say they’re optimistic. That’s a sharp reversal from April, when 64 percent said they were optimistic about the next year, while 36 percent said they were pessimistic.

Amid the souring public mood, administration officials defended their pandemic messaging approach.

"Last year, when things changed and cases spiked, the consequences of inaction or conflict or overruling experts were thousands of dead Americans," the administration official said. "We aren’t going to let that happen."

Heidi Przybyla contributed.