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Analysis: The CDC Can't Stop Undermining Its Own Credibility

AP Photo/Susan Walsh, Pool

Earlier in the week, we gave the CDC half a cheer for its impending, if embarrassingly belated, changes to guidance on outdoor masking. The new guidance finally arrived on Tuesday. It is profoundly underwhelming, to put it kindly. One science-based reality is that outdoor transmission of COVID is vanishingly rare – almost non-existent – even among unvaccinated people. Another science-based reality is that the vaccines work incredibly well, offering robust immunity. The notion that the CDC is still recommending that fully vaccinated people wear masks in some outdoor settings is untethered from the data, and yet again sends the counter-productive signal that maybe the vaccines don't work. They really truly do, of course, but that's not what the Powers That Be repeatedly insist on conveying. National Review's Phil Klein wrote a succinct and scathing post about the new CDC rules, calling them "a joke:" 


To be clear, the science was overwhelming last year that the risk of outdoor transmission of COVID-19 was low to non-existent. Anybody following the science should have never felt compelled to wear a mask outdoors during the pandemic. Furthermore, somebody who is fully vaccinated is at minimal risk of catching COVID-19 indoors or outdoors. Earlier this month, the CDC itself reported that out of a universe of 66 million individuals who were vaccinated at the time, just 5,800 got the virus. That’s less than 1-in-10,000. The idea that the CDC, even in loosening outdoor mask guidance, is still insisting that vaccinated people wear masks in crowded outdoor settings is completely unmoored from science or reason. This is a bungling agency that has made one mistake after another throughout the pandemic...It would be easy to say that every American should just ignore the CDC, because the people running it have exposed themselves as unserious people. But the problem is that state and local officials as well as private business often defer to CDC guidance. So if you live in a Faucistan sector of the United States, your daily life is likely still going to be affected by whatever the CDC decides to cook up.

Contributing to the problem is the fanfare with which government officials munificently bestow new "allowances" upon millions of Americans who have already been engaging in the newly-permitted actions for months. There's a massive disconnect between the elites making preposterous decisions and the lived experience of actual people. For instance, the fresh guidance says that "fully vaccinated Americans can go without masks outdoors when walking, jogging or biking outdoors, or dining with friends at outdoor restaurants." Many, many people (including some people on the cautious end of the spectrum) have been eating with friends at outdoor restaurants for the last nine months, well before vaccines were available. For the government to announce in late April 2021, "congratulations, you may now dine outdoors with other people if you're vaccinated" is self-discrediting because it understandably sounds ludicrous to huge swaths of the country. Do they hear themselves? Do they have any idea how people have been living? I share Ben Shapiro's exasperation about this: 


As the US runs into a "vaccine wall," where supply outstrips waning demand, the last thing public officials should do is hand people easy excuses not to seek out shots. Yet quite a few Americans will look at the ponderous and delayed federal guidelines for vaccinated people and conclude that getting the jab isn't really worth it. The message should be "fully vaccinated = normal life," but that's not what people are hearing. They're hearing ridiculous recommendations that vaccinated people remain masked, even outdoors, in some cases, and that they're now "allowed" to go do things they've been doing for the better part of a year. Klein calls the CDC a "bungling agency" and I'm afraid that's right. We've already chronicled the multiple instances in which the CDC has walked back their own director's public statements, and now we have another one

Speaking at a White House COVID-19 briefing on Friday, CDC head Dr. Rochelle Walensky said the "CDC recommends that pregnant people receive the COVID-19 vaccine," citing a new study that found no evidence to suggest that the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines pose risk during pregnancy.  Walensky's comment differed from the language published on the CDC's website, which says, "Any of the currently authorized COVID-19 vaccines can be offered to people who are pregnant or breastfeeding." A CDC spokesperson told CBS News that the agency's guidance for pregnant people had not changed from its March recommendation, which is that "pregnant people are eligible and can receive a COVID-19 vaccine" and clarified that the guidance "has always been and remains CDC's recommendation."

"Pregnant people" is the new "pregnant women," you see, and when Walensky said the CDC recommends pregnant women can get safely vaccinated against COVID, she was straying from the unchanged official guidance. If White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki is known for the "circle back," Walesnky and company are characterized by the walk back. Toss in the confounding and absurd summer camp guidance, and it really does feel like a mess

But as Klein notes, one might be tempted to just ignore the incoherence coming out of that agency, but their pronouncements impact state, local and corporate policies. Relatedly, here is my response to popular podcaster Joe Rogan's suggestion that young, healthy people not get vaccinated because they're at very low risk from serious illness or death from COVID: (1) Herd immunity is real and crucial. The more of us get vaccinated, the fewer people can transmit the disease, the more we kill the pandemic in its tracks. (2) Even if one doesn't die or get hospitalized from Coronavirus – and it's true that very, very few young people have experienced those worst outcomes – the virus can be quite unpleasant. (3) There are side effects that impact significant numbers of people who contract and survive COVID everyone should want to avoid, including psychological and neurological consequences among one-third of Coronavirus survivors. An estimated 1 in 10 COVID patients become "long haulers" with ongoing, long-term symptoms. Vaccines prevent these highly undesirable outcomes. I'll leave you with GOP doctors making the case for vaccination: 


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