Talking Points

The CDC's abysmal messaging

Even at this stage of the pandemic, it can't be easy to be the CDC. The situation remains fluid — there are variants and vaccine hesitancy to deal with, meaning the road to something that looks like normalcy has been anything but straight. Americans want this whole thing to be over, and the agency makes a convenient target for the folks who are frustrated that we can't just move on, already.

Sometimes, though, the CDC makes life harder on itself — and undermines public confidence as a result.

That's what has happened this week. On Tuesday, the agency revised its guidance on mask-wearing, encouraging everybody — vaxxed and unvaxxed — to wear facial coverings when indoors. That made sense to me: With COVID-19 hospitalizations skyrocketing in much of the country, masking up could be a quick-acting measure to slow the spread while vaccination efforts continue. Not everybody was convinced, though. Some experts and commentators noted the CDC had issued its recommendations without providing the public with the evidence it used to make its decision.

"They're making a claim that people with Delta who are vaccinated and unvaccinated have similar levels of viral load, but nobody knows what that means," one researcher told The Washington Post. "It's meaningless unless we see the data."

That's an entirely reasonable expectation. Instead of providing that data right away, an anonymous official told the newspaper it would be "published imminently." On Thursday night — after two days of angry debates about masking — somebody leaked an agency presentation showing that vaccinated people who contract the Delta variant have viral loads similar to unvaxxed persons. This is good to know. It would have been better to know on Tuesday.

Communications are a critical part of any public health effort. It's important to tell people not just what they should do to be safe, but why, and to show your work. By releasing its guidance before the data used to justify it, the CDC didn't so much put the cart before the horse as uncouple them entirely. Even with the data in place, we'd still see raucous debates over whether the agency's guidance is sound, and pushback from folks who won't do what the government says no matter what the facts might be. Without the data, though, it's easier for those opponents to portray the CDC's guidance as arbitrary and capricious. And that makes the fight to control the pandemic that much more difficult.