US can manage BA.2 variant ‘without disruption’, top Covid adviser predicts

The White House Covid response coordinator Ashish Jha appeared to undercut the Biden administration’s efforts to reinstate the federal mask mandate on Sunday, stating that the spreading BA.2 variant in the US was unlikely to have much effect on the nation’s pandemic recovery.

The justice department announced last week it would appeal the decision of a federal judge in Florida to prematurely lift the mandate on air, rail and bus travel in the US, based on the assertion by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that “an order requiring masking in the indoor transportation corridor remains necessary for the public health”.

With cases rising again in the US, Anthony Fauci, the government’s leading infectious diseases expert, told CNN he was “disappointed” by the judge’s ruling and that “this is a CDC issue – it should not have been a court issue.”

But in an interview on CNN’s State of the Union Sunday, Jha said that while he was “concerned” about the spread of Omicron variants including BA.2, he did not see it having any significant impact.

“We’re going to see cases go up, we’re going to see cases go down, the key things [are] making sure that hospitalizations and deaths are not rising in any substantial way,” he said. “I’m concerned, I’m gonna watch those numbers. But at this point, I remain confident that we’re gonna get through this without disruption.”

Jha did not tie his “without disruption” comment to the mask mandate, and said he shared Fauci’s belief that the mandate should be an issue for scientists, not the courts.

But opponents of the mandate, and the government’s legal efforts to reinstate it, are likely to point to it as evidence the government does not appear too alarmed by the new surge in cases.

Jha also addressed concerns of families that vaccinations were still not yet available to children under five, and that the mandate was lifted in apparent disregard of that fact.

“I have a lot of friends with kids. And I totally understand they’re frustrated. I am frustrated on their behalf,” he said.

“Neither Moderna nor Pfizer have yet submitted an application for an emergency authorization. We expect Moderna to do that this week and then the FDA (US food and drug administration) scientists are going to do what they have done throughout the whole pandemic, which is evaluate the data for safety and effectiveness.”

But, he said, final approval could still be weeks away: “I have no expectations that there are going to be any major hiccups, this should move quickly … my expectation is it’s certainly going to happen in the next couple of months.”

Biden’s government has been accused of causing “confusion” over its mask mandate messaging, the justice department appeal following the president’s comment that “it’s up to them” when asked if passengers should wear masks on public transportation.

“When people wear a well-fitting mask or respirator over their nose and mouth in indoor travel or public transportation settings, they protect themselves, and those around them, including those who are immunocompromised or not yet vaccine-eligible,” the CDC said in its statement strongly recommending that travelers continue to wear them.

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