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The CDC needs to stop lying to Americans and treating us all like children

  • The CDC may think it’s acting in the best interest of public health when it misleads us, but people generally don’t react well to being manipulated, as they are right now. 
  • The agency is using blatantly misleading stats to hype the threat of outdoor COVID transmission — which is minuscule. 
  • The public can’t trust the CDC when it’s paternalistically condescending to us, or when it lies straight to our face. 
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest round of COVID safety guidelines are unscientific and, in some cases, willfully deceptive.

The agency may think it’s acting in the best interest of public health when it misleads us, but people generally don’t react well to being manipulated, as they are right now. 

Public health messaging isn’t an easy job, and it’s much less enviable during a pandemic. 

But the excessive caution which the CDC is advising for outdoor activities this summer could prove to be the last straw for many of those who, until now, have diligently maintained compliance with COVID safety restrictions.

Instead of using obfuscation and coddling to get Americans to take the threat of COVID seriously, the CDC should be clear on the risks and level with the public that some of the restrictions imposed more than a year ago — when little was known about the virus — are no longer necessary.

Otherwise people will, rightly, tune them out.

“Good” lies still breed mistrust  

As David Leonhardt noted Tuesday in The New York Times, the CDC is misleading the public when it says fewer than 10% of Covid transmissions occur outdoors. 

The actual number, epidemiologists said, is probably between .1% and 1% — though it could even be less that. 

Anywhere on that scale is a long way from “10%.” 

Leonhardt described the “fewer than 10%” formulation as “both true and deceiving,” adding, “There is not a single documented COVID infection anywhere in the world from casual outdoor interactions, such as walking past someone on a street or eating at a nearby table.”

But the CDC seems determined to play three-card monte with its statistics, even as public trust in the agency continues to fade, according to a recent RAND Corporation poll

It’s not as if the CDC has access to wildly different experts than Leonhardt, so it’s clear what they’re doing: attempting to overcompensate for an American public it believes acts too risky. 

That’s a catch-22. 

Yes, large swaths of the American public have resisted basic precautions like mask-wearing and social distancing whenever possible. But the CDC’s rigidity and number-fudging has undermined its own authority.

All of this was perfectly encapsulated in a Senate committee hearing just hours after Leonhardt’s article was published, Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine told CDC director Rochelle Walensky, “I always considered the CDC to be the gold standard. I don’t anymore.” 

The senator blamed “conflicting confusing guidance from your agency has undermined public confidence and contradicts the scientific guidance of many experts.”

Collins cited the Times story, then quoted several prominent medical experts who called the agency’s summer camp safety guidelines “senseless” and “unfairly draconian.” 

Wallensky responded that the CDC’s guideline came from the top line of a meta-analysis of several scientific studies that concluded outdoor COVID transmission was “less than 10%” of all cases. 

But there’s that “less than” clause again. If the actual number is a small fraction of the topline number, it’s a lie, even if it’s true. 

It’s hard to believe the CDC director wasn’t prepared to be asked about this today, so if there were something substantially wrong with The New York Times story Collins cited, Wallensky could have said in plain English: “That story is wrong and our number is correct and not misleading. Here’s the proof.”

But Wallensky did not. She instead pivoted to a bizarre anecdote about how badly her 16-year-old son has been wanting to go to camp, but she refuses to allow him to go this summer. 

What kind of message does it send for the US’ top medical bureaucrat that she refuses to allow her son — who has been vaccine-eligible for the past month — to go to summer camp?

This is how you lose the public’s trust. 

Modeling dishonest, “good” behavior

Wallensky’s thinks she’s modeling “good” behavior by insisting it’s just too dangerous for her teenager to go to camp. 

In actuality, she’s undermining the message that the vaccines are safe, they are highly effective at preventing you from getting COVID, and everyone eligible should get jabbed.

The more effective message — which also benefits the CDC’s mission by being fact-based — would be for Wallensky to state clearly that based on the low likelihood of outdoor transmission and the effectiveness of the vaccine, her vaccinated teenager is headed to summer camp. Show people that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, that there is a possibility of having a social life again. The CDC should be encouraging us that we’ll all breathe life again much sooner if we all get the shot. 

Instead, we’re left with CDC guidelines that force children to wear masks at all times, even outdoors, and make campers socially distance by six feet, even outdoors despite the evidence much of this is overkill.

But the government’s medical authority has spoken. Kids must continue to suffer needlessly out of an overabundance of caution, because the CDC is unwilling to give it to the American public straight..  

There are bound to be COVID variants, and it’s possible they could spread among the vaccinated. It’s too soon to know.

That’s why it’s madness for the CDC to remain intractable on ineffectual COVID safety guidelines. 

The public can’t trust the CDC when it’s paternalistically condescending to us, or when it lies straight to our face. 

The CDC will regret its devotion to COVID safety theater the next time it needs mass compliance to stop an outbreak. The public will regret that medical authorities lied so recklessly, too. 

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