Dr. Rochelle Walensky's warning that face-covering requirements are still critical came just days after governors in Iowa and Montana lifted long-standing mask mandates in their states.
Appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press," Walensky said preventing further surges of infection is key to safely reopening schools and regaining some level of social normalcy until collective COVID-19 immunity can be achieved through mass vaccinations.
Whether Americans can look forward to walking down the street without wearing a mask by the end of the year "very much depends on how we behave right now," she said.
Asked if it was still too early for states to eliminate rules requiring the use of face masks in public, Walensky replied, "Absolutely."
While COVID-19 infection rates and hospitalizations appear to be waning, the United States has a long way to go before it can safely return to a mask-less normal, she said.
"The cases are more than two-and-a-half-fold times 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 coming down but they're coming down from an extraordinarily high place."
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