By Barbara Goldberg NEW YORK (Reuters) – The director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Sunday it is “absolutely” too early to remove the mask mandates, citing the daily number of COVID-19 cases that, despite recent declines, are still more than double the levels seen last summer. Dr. Rochelle Walensky’s warning that face-covering requirements remain critical came just days after the governors of Iowa and Montana lifted long-standing mask mandates in their states. Appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Walensky said preventing new outbreaks of infection is key to safely reopening schools and regain some level of social normalcy until herd COVID-19 immunity can be achieved through mass vaccinations. Whether Americans can expect to walk down the street without wearing a mask by the end of the year “depends largely on how we behave at the moment,” he said. When asked if it was too early for states to remove the rules requiring the use of face masks in public, Walensky replied: “Absolutely.” While COVID-19 infection rates and hospitalizations appear to be declining, the United States has a long way to go before it can safely return to normal without a mask, he said. “The cases are more than double and a half what we saw over the summer,” said Walensky, who was sworn in as CDC director last month after President Joe Biden took office. “It’s encouraging to see these trends go down, but they come from an extraordinarily high place.” Health experts say that the use of face masks throughout the population is one of the most effective ways to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 to controllable levels. Continued adherence to social distancing and face covering remains especially urgent given the risks posed by new variants of the coronavirus that are more transmissible, and possibly more resistant to antibodies, than the original strain. Control of COVID-19 in the United States remained strong on Sunday, with 27.6 million confirmed cases and more than 484,600 lives lost from the highly contagious respiratory virus to date, according to a Reuters tally. The US inoculation campaign has gained considerable momentum from a slow start in December, with a total of 52.9 million vaccines administered so far, according to the CDC. As the United States continues to fight to increase vaccine supplies and distribution, an unusually wide swath of winter weather in recent days caused the latest setback, forcing mass vaccination centers from Texas to Virginia to suspend operations.
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