A Confusing Message – The New York Times
The CDC has both a polarization problem and a communication problem.
Let’s start with the problem of polarization: The areas of the country that would benefit the most from a new crackdown on Covid-19 – including more frequent mask wear – are also the places least likely to follow CDC guidelines. Many of these communities have for months rejected the advice of medical experts, both on masks and on vaccines. Another CDC announcement won’t change that.
Yet these are the communities that the CDC tries to influence the most. In its updated guidelines yesterday, the agency did not recommend that all vaccinated people resume wearing masks indoors. The CDC has said that only vaccinated people living in “an area of significant or high transmission” should do so and released an online map showing eligible areas:
As you can see, most of the Northeast and Upper Midwest, as well as much of the West, have only “moderate” or “weak” transmission. If this remains true, residents vaccinated in these locations can generally remain unmasked, according to the CDC.
There are good reasons for this distinction. Peak infections among vaccinees seem to be just a small reason why the number of new cases has increased, as I explained in Monday’s newsletter. When vaccinated people contract the virus, they are less likely to pass it on to others – and much less likely to get very sick.
The graph below provides a snapshot of each state, comparing the share of residents who received at least one injection with the number of people hospitalized per capita:
“Less chances of success”
Who, then, is most likely to listen to the CDC’s new claim that vaccinated people wear masks indoors? People who live in the places where it will do the least good. These are usually politically liberal and highly vaccinated communities, where people are willing to wear masks even more often than scientific evidence requires (outside, for example).
Indiana University health director Dr. Aaron Carroll predicted that the new mask guidelines would be less effective than last year’s versions. “We heavily rely on masking and distancing, which is what we did when we didn’t have vaccines,” he wrote in The Times. “Today, such recommendations are less likely to be successful because they are more likely to be followed by those who are already ready to listen – the vaccinated – and to be fought and ignored by those who are not. “
Much of this reality is beyond the control of the CDC. The country was polarized long before Covid. But the CDC also failed to maximize its chances of being heard. This is the communication problem I mentioned above.
His announcement of the new guidelines was both vague and technical, making it difficult for many non-experts to understand. The agency did not say which regions of the country were affected or how that might change in the coming days. Instead, officials used the phrase “high transmission” areas as if that meant something to most Americans. President Biden, in a public statement, noted “Areas covered by CDC guidelines,” leaving listeners to guess what they were.
The White House added to the confusion last night by emailing staff members telling them they would need to wear masks again. The email explained that the CDC had recently changed Washington, DC from “moderate” to “substantial” transmission. The CDC’s online map, however, still showed the city in yellow, meaning it only had modest transmission.
All of this raises a question: Should Americans assume that the new mask guidelines will soon apply to almost the entire country – or will remain very regional, focused on the south and other less vaccinated areas? I interviewed government officials yesterday, and they didn’t get a solid answer.
The power of clarity
A clear message is one of the most powerful tools available to public health officials, but only when they are using it. And the CDC and the Biden administration didn’t do it yesterday. They didn’t say whether they wanted the whole country to start changing its behavior – or whether they were focusing only on certain regions, which happen to be the very places that need special attention to reach.
The new guidelines will probably still help somewhat. The highly contagious Delta variant has fueled an increase in cases across the country, meaning masks can make at least a small difference almost anywhere. But more frequent masking in heavily vaccinated communities will almost certainly not make a major difference. The much bigger problem is that more than 30 percent of eligible Americans have not been vaccinated.
“The CDC’s new masking recommendations sound good to me, but it’s a pretty low stake when it comes to anything about vaccination policy,” wrote Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight. “If you want to get mad at public health agencies, get mad at them for not having fully authorized vaccines yet.” “
Some experts also said Americans, frustrated by the long pandemic, need to hear a clear plan on what will allow the masks to come off. “If we’re going to keep asking people to step up,” Johns Hopkins University epidemiologist Jennifer Nuzzo told The Times, “we need to give them a vision of what we’re working towards.
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“Our world has moved from all over the world to our local community,” he said, and “the good neighborliness and creativity of the locals” have helped the local music scene to flourish. – Claire Moses, a morning writer
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Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you tomorrow. – David
PS A Tweeter from Jeanna Smialek of The Times, who covers Washington’s economic policy:
#Confusing #Message #York #Times