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Top US health official says not time to end Covid curbs

A store worker shapes a Stetson hat for clients while wearing a mask at a store in Garland, Texas - VALERIE MACON / ©AFP
A store worker shapes a Stetson hat for clients while wearing a mask at a store in Garland, Texas - VALERIE MACON / ©AFP

(AFP)

A top US health official warned Wednesday that Covid-19 measures had to stay in place if the pandemic is to be beaten, after Texas defied the federal government and dropped its mask-wearing mandate.

The United States has recorded over 500,000 deaths from the coronavirus, but has recently made progress with its vaccination plan, and some states are easing controls — triggering alarm from health experts.

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“Now is not the time to release all restrictions… the next month or two is really pivotal in terms of how this pandemic goes,” said Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“Every individual is empowered to do the right thing here regardless of what the states decide… I would still encourage individuals to wear a mask, to socially distance.”

Biden has hailed recent success in distributing vaccines, but stressed that Americans should continue to wear masks as his administration tries to quell the soaring death toll and the risk posed by new virus variants. 

“The president is 100 percent behind Doctor Walensky and the CDC’s recommendations,” White House coronavirus advisor Andy Slavitt said, speaking after Walensky at a coronavirus briefing.

“I don’t think you could possibly be any clearer about the importance and the need for masks. As a leader, it’s probably one of the topics he talks about most frequently.”

Walensky said that recent declines in Covid deaths and cases showed signs of stalling, and warned that the B117 hyper-transmissible variant “looms ready to hijack our successes to date.”

Texas, followed by Mississippi, on Tuesday brushed off warnings to not relax restrictions, saying businesses including restaurants and bars could operate as normal from next week.

– Caution versus optimism –

Just 9.2 percent of over-18s in Texas have had two vaccine doses, but Republican state governor Greg Abbott said the vaccine and better testing meant that normal life could resume.

“For nearly half a year, most businesses have been open either 75 percent or 50 percent and during that time, too many Texans have been sidelined from employment opportunities,” he told a business forum.

“This must end. It is now time to open Texas 100 percent,” he said to cheers from his audience.

Many Texans welcomed the move, saying mask-wearing was a matter of personal choice.

“I think this announcement is fantastic. I mean, let people make their own decision,” Ron Mart, oil industry worker, told AFP in Houston.

“It doesn’t need to be mandated. It’s not a nanny state kind of thing. The governor is not my mom, you know.”

But the Democratic mayor of Houston described the decision as “disappointing and disheartening” and tweeted that “every time we start moving in the right direction the Governor steps in and sets us back.”

Iowa and Montana eased restrictions last month, and in Massachusetts, restaurants now have no capacity limit, while in South Carolina gatherings are no longer limited to 250 people.

Some Democratic cities, such as San Francisco, are also taking steps towards a post-pandemic life by allowing indoor eating and museums to open with limited capacity.

Biden has sought to balance his pleas for mask wearing with his message that the US’s response to Covid-19 has been transformed since he took over from Republican president Donald Trump in January.

On Tuesday Biden announced that the United States will have enough Covid-19 vaccines for its adult population by the end of May — two months earlier than his last forecast.

He also unveiled a major deal for pharma giant Merck to produce the vaccine shot developed by its rival Johnson & Johnson.

Ben Sheppard

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