The debate over mask mandates continues, and more COVID-19 news

Officials across the U.S. are again weighing how and whether to impose mask mandates as COVID-19 infections soar and the American public grows ever wearier of pandemic-related restrictions.

Much of the debate centers around the nation’s schools, some of which have closed due to infection-related staffing issues. In a variety of places, mask mandates are being lifted or voted down.

The changes come as the federal government assesses the supply of medical-grade respirator face coverings, such as N95 or KN95 masks. During a briefing Wednesday, White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Jeff Zients said officials were “strongly considering options to make more high-quality masks available to all Americans,” noting the government has a stockpile of more than 750 million N95 masks.

As of Tuesday, just over 17% of U.S. children ages 5 to 11 were fully vaccinated, more than two months after shots became available to the age group. While Vermont is at 48%, California is just shy of 19% and Mississippi is at only 5%.

Vaccinations among the elementary school set surged after the shots were introduced in the fall, but the numbers have crept up slowly since then, and omicron’s explosive spread appears to have had little effect.

The low rates are “very disturbing,’’ said Dr. Robert Murphy, executive director for the Institute for Global Health at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “It’s just amazing.”

Parents who hesitate “are taking an enormous risk and continuing to fuel the pandemic,’’ Murphy said.

And, inflation jumped at its fastest pace in nearly 40 years last month, a 7% spike from a year earlier that is increasing household expenses, eating into wage gains and heaping pressure on President Joe Biden and the Federal Reserve to address what has become the biggest threat to the U.S. economy.

Prices rose sharply in 2021 for cars, gas, food and furniture as part of a rapid recovery from the pandemic recession. Vast infusions of government aid and ultra-low interest rates helped spur demand for goods, while vaccinations gave people confidence to dine out and travel.

As Americans ramped up spending, supply chains remained squeezed by shortages of workers and raw materials and this magnified price pressures.