U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said Sunday that he supports individual counties reinstating mask mandates to combat local surges of the coronavirus among unvaccinated people — like Los Angeles County did last week — as the pathogen’s highly contagious delta variant drives a spike in infections and the Biden administration seeks to project a sense of cautious optimism about the country’s return to normalcy.
“It’s very reasonable for counties to take more mitigation measures like the mask rules you see coming out in L.A., and I anticipate that will happen in other parts of the country too,” Murthy said on ABC News’s “This Week.”
Murthy said such local orders are consistent with federal guidelines that permit local authorities to require prevention measures.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in May that fully vaccinated individuals no longer needed to wear masks when shopping, dining at restaurants or gathering in other indoor locations, but the guidelines also gave local officials flexibility to respond to new outbreaks, Murthy said. The Los Angeles County order reinstating mask requirements indoors applies to both vaccinated and unvaccinated people.
“That is not contradictory to the guidance the CDC has issued,” Murthy said.
Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Hilda Solis, also appearing on “This Week,” said the new mandate is a response to new COVID-19 case loads that reached 1,900 a day last week.
“I’m not pleased that we have to go back to using the masks in this manner, but right now it’s going to save lives and that’s what most important,” Solis said.
The mask mandate comes as the delta variant has caused a surge in infections across the country, particularly in areas with low vaccination rates. On Friday, CDC director Rochelle Walensky warned “this is becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” noting more than 97% of new hospitalizations and almost all COVID-19 deaths were among the unvaccinated.
With less than half the country fully vaccinated and daily inoculation numbers having slowed considerably, administration officials have intensified their warnings to the public. Vice President Kamala Harris on Sunday tweeted: “This Delta variant is no joke. Get vaccinated.”
On Saturday, Harris’s office issued a statement saying she and her staff had met with members of the Texas state legislature who last week tested positive for the coronavirus despite being fully vaccinated — so-called “breakthrough cases” — but it was determined neither the vice president nor her aides were at risk of exposure.
On Sunday, after the White House said Harris was visiting Walter Reed military hospital for a routine doctor’s appointment, two officials close to the vice president emphasized it was “not COVID-related at all” and didn’t have anything to do with her recent meeting with the Texas Democrats.
“This was a prescheduled visit before anything happened this week,” said one of the officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a medical matter. Both declined to elaborate.
Murthy, speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union,” sought to reassure Americans about the vaccines’ safety and efficacy, noting that breakthrough cases such as those involving the Texas lawmakers are infrequent and generally far less dire.
“The good news,” he said, “is not only is the vaccine highly effective at preventing severe infection, like hospitalizations and deaths, but even if you do have a breakthrough infection, which, again, happens in a very small minority of people, it’s likely to be a mild or asymptomatic infection. So my hope is that people will feel reassured by that.”
Last week, Murthy issued an advisory warning about the dangers of misinformation about the virus and the vaccines engineered to combat it, saying the spread of falsehoods online had cost people their lives and social media platforms needed to do more to counteract it. The next day, President Joe Biden admonished big tech companies: “They’re killing people,” he told reporters.
The warnings prompted Facebook to hit back at the White House and accuse Murthy of praising them privately while publicly using them as a scapegoat for Biden’s missed vaccination goals. Murthy defended the administration Sunday, saying he had also told Facebook officials they were not doing enough.
“What I have effectively said is, when we see steps that are good, that are being taken, we should acknowledge those. And there have been some positive steps taken by these technology companies,” he said on CNN. “But what I have also said to them, publicly and privately, is that it’s not enough, that we’re still seeing a proliferation of misinformation online.”
On “Fox News Sunday,” Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., who is also a physician, said it was unsurprising some citizens did not trust the message coming from the White House, which they saw as “uber partisan,” and said people would be more likely to listen to local medical professionals “they see at the PTA meeting.”
“You choose either to be vaccinated or to accept a higher rate of unnecessary deaths,” Cassidy said. “That’s the way to communicate through your physician, your nurse, your P.A., etc.”
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The Washington Post’s Matt Viser contributed to this report.