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Biden Administration Navigates Changing Mask Mandates And Vaccine Requirements

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The new surge in COVID cases presents President Biden with a challenge about messaging. In May, the president took off his own mask and proudly announced that people who were fully vaccinated didn't need to wear one either. Now he's put a mask back on and has to explain why.

NPR White House correspondent, Franco Ordoñez, joins us now. Thanks very much for being with us, Franco.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Thanks, Scott.

SIMON: The delta variant is dangerous. We know. There's no guarantee another variant won't be more dangerous. We should say this is a novel virus. Things change all the time. How effective has the White House been in explaining that and the fact that guidance from the CDC shifts?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, they're a bit defensive when it comes to the about-face in messaging. Spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre went through a timeline on Friday that aimed to show the White House was warning about the delta variant all along. But really for a group that emphasizes the science, it's kind of striking that they didn't have their scientists give any public briefings since Tuesday - and at a time when there are so many questions about what this shift means.

Here's how Jean-Pierre responded to questions about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KARINE JEAN-PIERRE: The doctors have been on national television all week speaking to this, answering the questions on your networks. So they've been out there talking about - they're not hiding. They're actually having the conversations with anchors and hosts and answering the hard questions about the delta variant, about the CDC masking.

SIMON: And of course, Franco, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, who is the CDC director, was on Fox News last night and answered some audience questions. And that's gotten some attention.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. It's gotten a lot of attention. There were some confusing comments made, specifically about a federal mandate for the vaccine. That's something that Biden was asked about on Thursday. He said he wasn't sure if he could even order that for everyone. But the Pentagon is looking at making it mandatory for the military.

Walensky was asked whether she supports mandating the vaccine on the federal level. And she replied, quote, "that's something that I think the administration is looking into." Well, Scott, later she had to clean up the comment. On Twitter, she said she was talking about portions of the federal government. And she emphasized, quote, "there will be no federal mandate." This is a delicate issue for an important audience, many of whom may be unvaccinated and are skeptical.

SIMON: And how is President Biden trying to handle the politics of trying to get people to wear masks again and to get vaccinated?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, he was very careful this week not to blame anyone for not getting vaccinated. He even praised Republicans who have spoken out in favor of vaccinations, including Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell. And he tried to explain to people why this week's bad news shows that they need to get the shot. In his speech from the East Room that I was at, he was very blunt about this being a tragedy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: People are dying and will die who don't have to die. If you're out there unvaccinated, you don't have to die.

ORDOÑEZ: Now, Scott, Biden's approval ratings to this point have been strong on how he handled the pandemic. But this is coming at a time when a lot of people thought the worst was over. Biden last night was asked whether more restrictions were in the works. He said, quote, "in all probability," but added that he hopes vaccination rates go up.

SIMON: NPR White House correspondent, Franco Ordonez. Franco, thanks so much.

ORDOÑEZ: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEQUERBOARD'S "QUOTIDIAN DEBRIS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.