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Key Words: Lax COVID safety guidance could ‘come back to bite us,’ former Obama-era health official warns

The shift in the U.S. toward personal choice when it comes to COVID-19 precautions could backfire, a former Obama administration health official said Monday.

“My biggest issue with the it’s-your-call kind of theme that’s out there [is] we don’t do this in any other area of illness, health, or disease or burden,” Dr. Kavita Patel, a physician who served as a health policy director in the Obama administration, told CNBC’s “Squawk Box” in an interview Monday.

““I think that this is unfortunately going to come back to bite us, because we’re not necessarily doing the types of things we should be doing.””

— Dr. Kavita Patel

In a substantial shift from the past two years of the pandemic, many health officials are now favoring voluntary masking, boosters and isolation time after exposure to COVID-19 rather than stricter previous mandates and recommendations. The thinking is that with a majority of the population vaccinated and treatments available that make severe or deadly COVID cases less likely for most people, COVID precautions can become a matter of weighing personal risk.

“People are going to choose different levels of protection based on their own tolerance of risk and how much they want to avoid COVID-19, and at this point, the role of government needs to be to empower people to use the tools that are readily available,” Leana Wen, an emergency physician and professor at George Washington University, recently told the Wall Street Journal.

But that’s assuming a lot, Patel said Monday.

“That just seems like a very poor way for a country that has been told for two years, ‘Here’s what you need to do, here’s how you need to do it,’ and now we do what? Tell people to go to covid.gov and cross their fingers and hope that they can navigate the site and get to treatment?” she told CNBC.

On Monday, a federal judge in Florida voided the Biden administration’s mask mandate on airplanes and other public transportation. The White House said the TSA will no longer enforce masking at airports, and the major airlines quickly made masking optional on flights — leading to cheers from some and disappointment from others.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases are rising again across the country, driven by the BA.2 variant and two new, potentially even more contagious, subvariants. The U.S. averaged 37,619 new cases a day as of Sunday, according to a New York Times tracker, an increase of 39% over the previous two weeks. Hospitalizations, however, fell 7% to a per-day average of 14,768 and deaths dropped 21%, to an average of 511 a day, both near their lowest points since the early months of the pandemic in 2020.

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