Biden health officials begin discussing mask recommendations as variants surge cases

Top Biden health officials and some White House officials are holding preliminary conversations on revising mask recommendations for vaccinated Americans as the Delta variant spreads throughout the US, according to multiple sources familiar with discussions.

Officials have weighed whether guidance should be revisited after the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention dropped its mask mandate for vaccinated individuals earlier this year. Under discussion is what messages on masking the White House offer and what guidance the CDC should issue, the sources say. White House officials have repeatedly said it will be up to the CDC whether to change official guidance.

Administration officials insistent that science will guide the process, acutely aware that any official or non-official changes to mask rules would be a psychological blow for a country well into its second year of pandemic-related restrictions. When President Joe Biden emerged in the Rose Garden in May to herald the CDC announcement that masks were no longer required for vaccinated Americans, he declared it “a great day in America;” new guidance to mask up would inevitably underscore the not-so-great predicament currently facing the nation.

But now that the Delta variant makes up over 80% of cases in the US, officials have weighed whether vaccinated people should begin wearing masks again indoors.

These discussions were given new urgency this week after the American Association of Pediatrics recommended that everyone over the age of 2 wear masks when they return to school. One source familiar with the conversations said the administration is also considering recommendations that more heavily emphasize Americans should follow local guidance when it comes to wearing a mask indoors or for children at school.

The Washington Post first reported the renewed mask discussions.

The Biden White House has been careful not to overstep with the nation’s top health agencies, a break from the previous administration, and one official insisted that any updated guidance would have to come from the CDC itself. According to one source familiar with internal discussions, the health agency is internally reconsidering its stance on mask orders. A third person familiar with the ongoing talks said they aren’t far enough along yet to make a determination on masks but are weighing the best way to proceed.

“At this time, we have no intention of changing our masking guidance,” CDC spokesman Jason McDonald told CNN.

Another source in communication with the White House said officials they spoke with showed little appetite for any sort of federal mask mandate, expressing hesitancy of wading into what has now become a political flash point.

On the AAP decision, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser and the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said he believed the recommendation was made as “the extra step of caution,” adding that the CDC is looking carefully at the AAP recommendations and “hopefully we’ll have some now concordance of the recommendations.”

In the meantime, the White House continues to hold calls with governors lead by Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, and a rotation of other administration officials, multiple state sources said. The sessions are informative and data driven, rather than offering advice or guidance, the sources said.

State and local health officials that talked to CNN were mixed on whether they wanted additional mandates or recommendations from the federal government. One Republican state official said that their state was unlikely to follow any sort of new masking guidance, regardless of an increase in cases.

The CDC has also been in regular in touch with state officials on potential mask orders and other mitigation steps.

“The CDC has been spending a lot of time trying to work through the issue of masking and figure out what to do next, and whether or not they need to be reconsidering things,” Dr. Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, said. “They’re really struggling with it.”

Some local health officials are hoping for updated federal guidance as cases continue to spike to help with mitigation.

“What we’re seeing is some resistance from local health departments to step in front of the CDC guidance, but they might have to,” Lori Freeman, the chief executive officer of the National Association of County and City Health Officials, said, noting that Los Angeles county had just taken the step of implementing a mask mandate.

“However, community by community making those decisions when the whole of the country seems to have rising cases can be problematic with what we’ve been through with the politicization of the public orders.”

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The pandemic changed the way we ate and shopped — not always for the better

The pandemic changed the way we ate and shopped — not always for the better

FILE – In this May 23, 2011 file photo, consumer Sonia Romero shops for tomatoes at a Superior Grocers store in Los Angeles. As food costs continue rising, many grocery shoppers are seeking new ways to cut costs. After you’ve tried every store brand and linked, scanned and clipped every coupon in sight, what about buying in bulk? (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)

(CNN) — Covid-19 affected our lives in so many ways, including how we ate and shopped. The changes were not always for the better, according to a series of reports presented Monday at the annual meeting of the American Society of Nutrition.

Increase in junk food intake

An analysis by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found some of us increased our consumption of unhealthy snacks and desserts, including chips, cookies and ice cream, while also guzzling more sugary drinks such as sweetened coffee and teas, regular sodas, fruit drinks, and sports or energy drinks.

Over a third (36%) of the nearly 4,000 Americans who were surveyed in June 2020 reported sometimes consuming more unhealthy snacks and desserts than before the pandemic, while 22% said they sometimes drank sugary drinks.

However, 16% said they ate snacks and sweets often or always, while 10% said the same of sugary beverages. People who reported consuming the most unhealthy foods and drinks were more likely to identify as Hispanic or Black and be younger than age 65, obese, female, and of lower income and education levels.

The same survey also asked about food availability and safety. Nearly 6 in 10 people — predominately lower-income, unemployed, Black or Hispanic adults — said they were worried about not being able to obtain food at nearby stores or were concerned they might catch Covid-19 from food. Early fears that Covid-19 could be spread via food packaging were quickly discounted by scientists.

These findings “highlight the importance of strategies and communications that reduce fears and prevent unintended negative behaviors,” such as food hoarding and panic buying, said dietitian Brianna Dumas, a fellow in the CDC’s Research Participation Program, in an abstract.

In addition, public health officials should stress “consumer awareness of food access options during emergencies, including promotion of hunger safety net programs, especially among disproportionately affected groups,” Dumas said.

A drop in healthy foods

Another study analyzed the diets of more than 2,000 Americans before and during the pandemic and found a decrease in the consumption of healthy foods, including vegetables and whole grains, during the past year.

“This decrease was the most pronounced among women, black and Latino study participants, and participants who gained at least five pounds or more since 2018,” said Caroline Um, a postdoctoral fellow at the American Cancer Society, in a statement.

Um plans to follow study participants to understand how their diets might continue to change. Other studies will investigate which factors, such as mental health or financial stressors, might be involved in the change in eating behaviors.

Kids gained weight

Nearly 30% of 433 parents surveyed by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University said their child had gained an average of 9.6 pounds in the months between May and September of 2020.

Parents of children between 5 and 18 years old were questioned before the pandemic and again in May and September of 2020 about their concerns regarding their child’s weight.

Families who said their child gained weight during that time period were concerned about that trend and attempted to monitor and restrict their child’s eating habits in both May and September. However, in families where children did not gain weight, parents were initially concerned and monitored their child’s food intake in May, but had stopped doing so by September.

Further research is needed to investigate and target the “different behavioral, societal, environmental, and psychosocial factors” that might contribute to weight gain among children and adolescents, wrote Melanie Bean, an associate professor of pediatrics and co-director of the Healthy Lifestyles Center at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at Virginia Commonwealth University, in an abstract.

Teasing people about their weight

Another study presented at the conference looked at the impact on children when family members teased them or made other critical comments about their weight. Researchers from Tufts University found that exposure to negative family comments about weight “as little as 3 times per month was significantly associated with moderate to high levels of weight bias internalization,” according to the study.

Prior research has shown that when children and adults experience weight stigma and internalize it, that itself can predict weight gain.

“A common perception is that a little shame or stigma might motivate people to lose weight, but that is not what we see in research,” Rebecca Puhl, deputy director at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut, told CNN in a prior interview.

“In fact, when people experience weight stigma, this actually contributes to unhealthy eating behaviors, lower physical activity and weight gain,” Puhl said. “Our studies show that when parents shift the conversation to healthy behaviors, that tends to be much more effective.

“The focus isn’t on the number on the weight scale, but on the whole family eating fruits and vegetables, replacing soda with water, getting daily physical activity,” she added.

Online grocery shopping

A study done in the early days of the pandemic — March and April of 2020 — found that a third of the nearly 18,000 households surveyed said they were shopping online for groceries, and, of those, 60% said they planned to continue to do so after the pandemic passed.

Their top reasons? Over 80% said it was to “avoid public germs and Covid-19,” while 44% wanted to “take advantage of the convenience,” according to Shu Wen Ng, an associate professor in the Department of Nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Higher food prices in areas with higher restrictions

Researchers from Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy analyzed retail prices for food and other consumer goods in 133 counties in the United States and compared them to the levels of Covid-19 restrictions imposed by local governments.
Results showed that a higher level of government restrictions during the pandemic was associated with higher food prices, but did not affect the cost of other consumer goods.