A day after Texas and Mississippi announced they were dropping mask mandates and loosening other coronavirus restrictions, President Biden said it was a “big mistake” and it was “Neanderthal thinking” for people to stop wearing masks.
“Look, I hope everybody’s realized by now these masks make a difference,” Biden, who was wearing a mask, told reporters at the White House.
He said the United States was “on the cusp of being able to fundamentally change” the course of the pandemic, with vaccinations currently underway across the nation.
But, he said, “The last thing, the last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking that, in the meantime, everything’s fine, take off your mask.”
Biden, who announced Tuesday that the United States will have enough vaccine for every adult American by the end of May, emphasized it would take time to get shots into people’s arms and said vaccinations wouldn’t be completed until “sometime in the summer.”
He said it was “critical, critical, critical that people follow the science” and continue taking precautions such as wearing masks, socially distancing, and handwashing.
Earlier Wednesday, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said during a briefing by the White House COVID-19 response team that the nation is “at a critical nexus in the pandemic,” and the next two months are “pivotal.”
While vaccinations are underway nationwide, Walensky warned that deaths and new infections have plateaued at a “troubling” level after declining from their January highs.
“Fatigue is winning and the exact measures we have taken to stop the pandemic are now too often being flagrantly ignored,” she said.
The CDC has been clear in opposing states’ moves to lift restrictions, she said, encouraging Americans to continue to take precautions.
“The next month or two is really pivotal in terms of how this pandemic goes,” Walensky said. “We really do need to decrease the amount of virus that is circulating as we’re trying to vaccinate all the public.”
“I will also note that, you know, every individual has the power to do the right thing here, regardless of what the states decide, for personal health, for public health, for the health of their loved ones, and communities. I would still encourage individuals to wear masks, to socially distance, and to do the right thing to protect their own health,” said Walensky, formerly the head of the infectious disease division at Massachusetts General Hospital.
The governors of both Texas and Mississippi on Tuesday said they were lifting mask orders and allowing businesses to return to full capacity.
Andy Slavitt, a senior health adviser for the Biden administration, said at the response team briefing, “The President is committed to a few things. One is to follow the recommendations of the science and the scientists and wherever that goes and so the president is 100 percent behind Dr. Walensky and the CDC recommendations.”
He said mask-wearing is “critically important.”
“We know that it can save tens of thousands of lives if people do this. And we strongly encourage people to continue to wear masks, and mayors, governors, and others, recognizing that they have difficult decisions to make, to keep the course,” he said.
Massachusetts is easing some restrictions, but Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker said Wednesday at a news conference, “We have no plans at this point in time to change the rules with respect to the mask mandate.”
Material from Globe wire services was used in this report.
Martin Finucane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.