The COVID Guidance Muddle: No Wonder We Stand Divided

The COVID Guidance Muddle: No Wonder We Stand Divided
(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
The COVID Guidance Muddle: No Wonder We Stand Divided
(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
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As officials across the U.S. struggle to enforce a “new normal” of mask wearing and social distancing while convincing their citizens to accept continued partial or full lockdown restrictions, a closer look at public health authorities’ messaging over the past four months makes it clear why the nation has become so divided over the pandemic response.  Adding to the muddle of late is disparate guidance regarding plane, train, bus and car travel.

For the first three months of the pandemic, public health officials reassured a nervous public that there was little chance the virus would affect Americans, that it didn’t spread person-to-person, that asymptotic individuals were not a concern and that Americans should not be wearing masks. The Centers for Disease Control even asked the nation’s media outlets to help it convey these messages to the public.

In February, the CDC’s official COVID-19 guide for the public emphasized avoiding touching contaminated surfaces to avoid infection and urged that the public “DO NOT use facemasks. CDC does not recommend the use of facemasks for the general U.S. public to prevent the spread of” the disease. Today the CDC’s official guidance offers precisely the opposite, urging mask wearing and notes that “touching a surface or object that has the virus on it … is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”

For months, news headlines breathlessly detailed computer models predicting tens of millions dead worldwide, while the CDC’s own predictions estimated up to 1.7 million lost American lives. At the same time, the public was told that little was known about the disease and all of the assumptions in these models could change, rendering these predictions little more than wildly changing estimates. By last week at least one model had revised U.S. deaths all the way down to 143,360 through August.

Rather than emphasize the uncertainty of the models driving policymaking, officials and media outlets have routinely cited them in unqualified fashion.

In another aspect of shifting guidance, today the World Health Organization advises social distancing of one meter (three feet), the CDC recommends six feet and scientists have published research suggesting distances as great as 27 feet might be required.

In light of all this, pundits decrying a public loss of confidence in “science” would do well to reflect on the fact that the public has endured months of evidence-based mandates that reflected the best available scientific knowledge, only to be told precisely the opposite weeks later.

Social media companies like Facebook and Medium increasingly ban calls to end social distancing and state and municipal governments across the country have implemented legal requirements for social distancing.

Yet the CDC’s own website illustrates the contradictions in this public messaging. On the one hand, the agency strongly recommends that the public “Stay at least 6 feet from other people,” “not gather in groups” and “stay out of crowded places and avoid mass gatherings,” emphasizing that “keeping space between you and others is one of the best tools we have to avoid being exposed to this virus.”

On the other hand, the traveling public is all too aware that airlines are frequently packing flyers shoulder-to-shoulder with social distancing of mere inches. The CDC’s own travel advisory acknowledges that flying “can bring you in close contact with other people and frequently touched surfaces” and that “social distancing is difficult on crowded flights, and you may have to sit near others (within 6 feet), sometimes for hours” yet offers that “most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes.”

With respect to bus and train travel, the agency acknowledges that “[t]raveling on buses and trains for any length of time can involve sitting or standing within 6 feet of others” and that even traveling by car requires travelers “making stops along the way for gas, food, or bathroom breaks [which] can put you and your traveling companions in close contact with other people and surfaces.”

Given that the CDC has permitted car, bus and train travel during the pandemic as an acceptable risk for the nation despite their inherent lack of social distancing so long as travelers wear masks, why has it not similarly permitted businesses across the country to remain open with similar guidelines? In the same vein, if airplane cabins do not present an undue infection risk due to their air filtration, why can businesses not reopen that adopt equivalent enhanced air filtration?

Such are the questions the public might reasonably ask as they attempt to interpret the government’s seemingly contradictory advice.

As some business owners are jailed for reopening in defiance of government orders, while others publicly tout their prohibited reopenings without consequence and government officials flout the very lockdown orders they enforce on the public, it is no wonder the public is increasingly divided over their government’s pandemic response.

RealClear Media Fellow Kalev Leetaru is a senior fellow at the George Washington University Center for Cyber & Homeland Security. His past roles include fellow in residence at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Government.

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