Americans Suffer Pandemic Whiplash as Leaders Struggle With Changing Virus
WASHINGTON – A week of public health reversals from the White House and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has left Americans with a pandemic whiplash, confusing coronavirus vaccines and mask wear as the Delta variant disrupts what people thought they knew how to stay safe.
The vaccines remain effective and highly protective against hospitalization and death, even in people infected with the highly contagious Delta variant. Wearing a mask prevents transmission of the virus to those most at risk.
But the crisis President Biden thought he had under control is changing shape faster than the country can adapt. An evolving virus, new scientific discoveries, deep ideological divisions and 18 months of ever-changing pandemic messages have left Americans skeptical of public health advice. So although the White House has promised a “summer of joy,” the nation is instead caught in a summer of confusion.
“While we desperately want to end this pandemic, Covid-19 is clearly not done with us, and our fight must therefore last a little longer,” Dr Rochelle P. Walensky told reporters on Monday, director of the CDC. . “It’s hard. It’s heavy. But we’re in the same boat.”
Monday was another day that underscored cross-currents for the country’s leaders as their efforts for a disciplined public health campaign again collided with the chaotic nature of the pandemic. Instead of a cohesive post, the result was another dizzying jumble of divergent news and announcements.
In Louisiana, a state with one of the lowest vaccination rates, Governor John Bel Edwards reinstated an indoor mask tenure, as have health officials in San Francisco and six other counties in the region. from the bay. But in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio refused to do so, even though such a move would have been consistent with CDC guidelines.
The virus has continued to cloud mainstream politics. In the left-wing city of Chicago, city officials said more than 385,000 people attended the four-day Lollapalooza music festival – and Mayor Lori Lightfoot defended it. In Washington, Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican of South Carolina and longtime supporter of former President Donald J. Trump, announced he had tested positive for coronavirus but said his symptoms had been mild, which he attributed to having received the vaccine.
“I feel like I have a sinus infection,” Graham said wrote on Twitter. “Without the vaccination, I’m sure I wouldn’t feel as well as I do today. My symptoms would be much worse.
Nationally, the number of cases continued to increase. The country reported a daily average of nearly 80,000 new infections on Sunday, up from around 12,000 in early July, according to a New York Times database. A spate of frightening reports of unvaccinated people dying from Covid-19 appear to have accomplished what Mr Biden could not: The nation has finally achieved the White House target, initially set for July 4, to ‘have 70 percent of American adults at least partially immunized.
Some experts say the CDC is to blame for some of the confusion. After saying in May that those vaccinated could go mask-less both indoors and outdoors, the agency did an about-face last week, once again recommending masking indoors for everyone – vaccinated or not – in places where the virus is spreading rapidly.
Days later, a leaked document delivered the grim reasoning: Delta is as contagious as chickenpox and spreads even among fully vaccinated people, putting unvaccinated people at risk and posing the threat of another mutation. virus that could escape vaccines.
“The Delta variant is different from the previous strains,” Dr. Walensky said. “I understand that this is all frustrating news, and I share that frustration.”
A senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the administration’s thinking, admitted Monday that many Americans remained perplexed after the flurry of sometimes difficult and seemingly contradictory information.
Another administration official said Mr Biden would address the nation later this week – the second time in less than a week – to reiterate and clarify his key takeaways: vaccines are safe and effective . The reason that even vaccinated people have to mask themselves again is that so many people are not vaccinated. So go get your shots and tell your friends and neighbors to do the same.
“The thing that hasn’t changed is the need to get vaccinated; the thing that hasn’t changed is that masks work and they protect you, ”said Dr Carlos del Rio, infectious disease specialist at Emory University who lectures on crisis communication .
But Dr del Rio said the CDC took a misstep in May when it told vaccinated Americans they didn’t need to wear masks – not because the science behind the recommendation was flawed, but because that move caused everyone to take off their masks and prompted states, towns and retailers to drop their mask requirements, which allowed the Delta variant to thrive.
“It was scientifically correct from a virological point of view,” said Dr del Rio of the previous recommendation. “It was wrong from a behavioral science point of view.”
The new recommendation – that even vaccinated people wear masks in areas of the country where the virus is spreading rapidly – is much more nuanced, leaving state and local leaders to go their own way and making it difficult for residents to know how to behave. Republican opponents of the administration, meanwhile, scoffed at the shifting advice.
In the House, Republican lawmakers revolted over a mask requirement even as Fox News’ Sean Hannity urged his viewers to get vaccinated. Yet former President Barack Obama plans to throw a star-studded party on Martha’s Vineyard to celebrate his 60th birthday with hundreds of people. A spokeswoman for Mr. Obama said the party was being held outdoors and not in a high-transmission area, and that the former president would follow all CDC guidelines.
Across the country, the questions are piling up again: can I eat indoors in a restaurant or bar? What about a sporting event? Do children have to wear masks when they go to school in September? Will a vaccine for children be available by then and will it be mandatory? What – exactly – are people supposed to be afraid of? And what should they do with it?
Understanding the state of vaccination mandates in the United States
There is no one answer. The risk is different for different people, depending on whether or not they are vaccinated and depending on the level of the virus in their community. At the same time, the pandemic is evolving rapidly and constantly, which is part of the CDC’s challenge.
“They are in a bit of a dead end – it’s very difficult to convey,” said Jen Kates, senior vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation. “What is happening is that these are real-time public health messages in a pandemic around data that has just emerged. It’s just the reality, and it doesn’t necessarily provide comfort or always the kind of answers people understand.
On Monday at the White House, Jen Psaki, the press secretary, took up the challenge of messaging head-on. She cited statistics showing vaccines prevent most illnesses and deaths, insisted the country would not revert to large-scale shutdowns and noted that cases like Mr Graham’s remain extremely rare .
But clarity has been elusive as the virus – along with scientific understanding of how best to combat it – has continued to transform, sometimes day by day.
Even though the CDC has recommended masks for everyone in areas of rapid spread, the White House has made a different and somewhat contradictory push. To encourage vaccination, Mr Biden announced last week that unvaccinated federal workers – but not those who get vaccinated – will be required to wear masks at work.
Experts agree that some of the confusion could have been avoided if the CDC and Dr Walensky had been more transparent and simply released the data underlying the latest mask recommendations, which then leaked to the media.
Also, said Dr del Rio, the agency has twisted its most important message – that Americans must get vaccinated – by focusing so much on “breakthrough infections” in those vaccinated, which are still very rare.
“It has diverted attention from the point we need to make, which is that breakthrough infections are very rare and your greatest risk continues to be unvaccinated,” he said. “I’m afraid that because people are so focused on the breakthroughs, we are losing the forest to the trees. “
Public health experts often say that in any infectious disease outbreak, messages are not part of the answer: is the answer. The CDC has an entire arm of its website devoted to training health communicators, with links to podcasts, sample social media posts, and a 120-page “health communication guide”.
“It’s not just a matter of science,” Ms. Kates said. “It’s about human behavior and the decisions real people have to make, and those decisions are affecting the course of the pandemic.”
Public health communications are also inherently political, as the message comes from political leaders. This too posed a challenge to the White House. When Mr. Biden became president, he vowed that he and his White House aides would not interfere in CDC decisions, as they did under the Trump administration.
But Dr Tom Frieden, former CDC director, said in a recent interview with NPR that Biden’s White House may have gone “too far the other way,” leaving Dr Walensky, who has no government experience, and the CDC to run their own messaging without input from White House communications experts.
“You sometimes hear people say, ‘Let’s get politics out of public health,’ Dr Frieden said. “Well, public health is the activity of communities becoming safer and healthier. And there are a lot of political decisions that happen during this process. What is problematic is when partisanship gets in the way.
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