The White House began assembling a pandemic exit strategy for the nation in recent weeks, pulling together health experts and aides to develop what one top official described as a plan "to keep the country moving forward."
But the top-level push by the Biden administration was preempted by a chorus of Democratic governors this week eager to pull back restrictions, prompting gentle pushback Wednesday from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the White House.
"We're continuing to convey directly to governors our recommendation that they abide by federal public health guidelines, but also our understanding that they may make decisions based on what they feel is best for their communities," White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Wednesday.
At the same, the White House said it understood people were tired of masks.
"We certainly understand the need to be flexible," Psaki said.
After months of following the guidance from public health agencies, several Democratic governors this week announced plans to lift mask mandates in schools and elsewhere. Six states — California, Delaware, Illinois, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island — have said they will drop their universal mask mandates in the next few weeks, meaning people will not be required to wear them in indoor public places.
When it comes to schools, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Delaware, Connecticut, and Oregon will stop requiring masks in the next few weeks, leaving it up to individual school districts to decide if students should wear them or not.
The moves are at odds with the CDC recommendation that everyone ages 2 and older should continue to wear a mask in indoor public settings.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told reporters Wednesday that the CDC was working on updating its guidelines. But she declined to say what it would include, like specific benchmarks that might be used to help inform states that are already forging ahead.
"We're of course taking a close look at this in real time and we're evaluating rates of transmission, as well as rates of severe outcomes, as we look at updating and reviewing our guidance," Walensky said.
"What I will say though is, you know, our hospitalizations are still high, our death rates are still high, so as we work towards that and as we are encouraged by the current trends, we are not there yet."
The approach leaves the CDC in a largely observational state, neither charting a national path forward or denouncing states that do so on their own, but continuing to monitor data.
It's a fine line, and for some, confusing.
Walensky said the CDC plans to update guidance to inform decision-making on masks soon, but also that decisions should be made at a local level.
And while the CDC is still recommending masks right now, Walensky said that position wasn't a denouncement of states who are planning to lift their mask mandates in the next few weeks, when cases, hospitalizations and deaths are all likely to be lower.
The White House backed the CDC position, even as it said it was working with health experts for a plan to move the country toward normalcy.
"For the last several weeks, we've been working closely with (Health Secretary Xavier) Becerra, our team of doctors and the White House COVID response team under the President's leadership is reaching out to Governor's and outside public health experts and doctors and local public health officials on steps we should be taking to keep the country moving forward," White House COVID coordinator Jeff Zients said Wednesday.
Asked by a reporter if people should follow their governors or the CDC, Walensky said they should be looking to their local guidance -- but clarified that many of these decisions aren't effective for weeks, leaving the door open for CDC's guidance to line up with it.
"They have to be done at the local level, but I'm really encouraged that cases are continuing to drop dramatically. Hospitalizations are continuing to drop dramatically as people are making these decisions and as we are working on our guidance. So I'm encouraged to see those trends," Walensky said.
Walensky outlined all the major data the CDC takes into account to change its guidance.
"In part of our review of the surveillance, we look at wastewater, we look at cases, we look at hospitalizations … we look at deaths, and of course those decisions are made at the local level," Walensky said.
But right now, none of that data indicates the U.S. should drop its mask mandates, Walensky said.
"At this time we continue to recommend masking in areas of high and substantial transmission, that's much of the country right now, in public indoor settings," she said.