President Joe Biden criticized states that have rolled back mask mandates in recent days, calling it "a big mistake."
In comments made during a press pool spray in the Oval Office Wednesday, Biden said it was unwise for Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves to lift mask mandates as the country nears the ability to vaccinate all adults.
"The last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking that, in the meantime, everything is fine. Take off your mask. Forget it. It still matters," Biden said.
Biden's comments came hours after members of the White House COVID-19 response team urged Americans to continue wearing masks in public, even if state governors choose to lift those restrictions.
"We have been very clear that now is not the time to release full restrictions," said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky. “Every individual is empowered to do the right thing here, regardless of what the states decide — for personal health, for public health, for the loved ones in their communities."
The briefing came a day after Texas and Mississippi, among several others, announced they will lift statewide mask mandates and removed capacity restrictions in public places like restaurants.
The move by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and others contradicts advice from the CDC and other health experts who continue to strongly encourage mask wearing and remaining socially distant in public places. They also recommend wearing a mask even after being vaccinated since it is not clear if a person who has been fully vaccinated can still spread the virus to others.
White House COVID-19 response team adviser Andy Slavitt added Wednesday that widespread mask usage will save "tens of thousands of lives" in the coming months.
Later Wednesday, in a White House briefing, press secretary Jen Psaki decried Abbott's decision.
"This entire country has paid the price for political leaders who have ignored science," Psaki said.
She went on to says that the Biden administration hopes that Americans continue to wear masks even if states choose to lift mandates.
In Abbott's announcement Tuesday, he said it was a personal responsibility and there was no need for the statewide mandate.
Walensky said Wednesday that she is once again "troubled" by recent trends in COVID-19 case rates. After falling consistently for the past two months, the rate of decrease has stalled in recent days at about 70,000 new cases each day.
Walensky said the U.S. currently finds itself at a "critical nexus" in the pandemic, with case rates still elevated and the country on the verge of vaccinating a large percentage of its population.
The COVID-19 response team also lauded Johnson & Johnson's decision to work with competitor Merck to increase production of the recently-approved one-shot COVID-19 vaccine. Johnson & Johnson's vaccine is getting to Americans this week after it was authorized for emergency use by the FDA over the weekend.
Slavitt congratulated the two companies for "stepping up as good corporate citizens."
In an announcement regarding that partnership on Tuesday, President Joe Biden announced that there should be enough vaccines to vaccinate all American adults by the end of May. On Wednesday, Slavitt said that he was confident in setting that deadline, adding that the administration is "not in the habit of over-promising.: