Health Care

America’s Centers for Disease Confusion

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters in Atlanta, Ga. (Tami Chappell/Reuters)
Public-health officials have botched their pandemic response and messaging nearly every step of the way.

America’s vaccination campaign is stalling. In late June, pharmacists and other providers were administering roughly 800,000 shots a day — down 80 percent from a peak of more than 4.6 million in mid April.

Because of this precipitous decline, the Biden administration recently admitted it would miss its self-imposed goal of vaccinating at least 70 percent of American adults by Independence Day. So far, only 66 percent have gotten the jab.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) deserve much of the blame for plummeting vaccination rates. Public-health officials have botched their pandemic response and messaging nearly every step of the way — inadvertently stoking skepticism of the vaccines.

Take the CDC’s worst mistake: its decision, in partnership with the Food and Drug Administration, to pause the use of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine for ten days because of a risk of blood clots. The risk ended up being less than one in a million.

That overreaction triggered an immediate drop in public trust in the vaccine. Immediately after the CDC advised halting the J&J shot, the number of daily first doses of all vaccines administered plummeted by some 40 percent compared with weeks earlier.

Recent data have confirmed just how damaging that choice was. According to recent polling, more than 40 percent of unvaccinated Americans say that their biggest concern is that the J&J shot causes blood clots. More than one-quarter believe that every vaccine causes blood clots.

This poor decision-making has been the norm for the CDC since the beginning of the pandemic. The agency’s guidance seems to have been motivated more by armchair psychology than by hard data.

There’s no shortage of examples. Recall that in the pandemic’s earliest days, the CDC blocked doctors and labs from testing for the virus despite a suspicious upswing in people with symptoms consistent with COVID-19.

The CDC’s own COVID-19 test, released in early February 2020, ended up being dangerously flawed. Weeks passed before the agency permitted private labs to start making better tests.

In early April 2020, when the virus was killing 1,000 Americans every day, the CDC declared, “You do not need to wear a facemask.” The very next day, officials changed their mind — Americans needed to wear a “cloth face cover.” The CDC said this flip-flop was based on new “science” showing that patients could be infected and contagious for several days before having symptoms. Yet studies had determined that as early as February 2020.

Critics have tried to pin all this confusion on former president Trump. But the CDC’s record since President Biden’s inauguration has not improved.

In February of this year, CDC guidance on reopening schools misleadingly cherry-picked data to reach predetermined conclusions secretly written by lobbyists for teachers’ unions.

In April, the agency issued new mask guidance that mentioned that less than 10 percent of COVID-19 infections were occurring outdoors. That was technically true — but highly misleading. The data showed that the real number was below 1 percent — and potentially much lower. In fact, as New York Times columnist David Leonhardt noted, “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.”

It’s no wonder public confidence in the agency is low. Barely half the country trusts it a “great deal,” and one in five Americans don’t trust it “at all,” according to a recent poll from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.

That distrust is concerning. After all, the more confusion the CDC sows, the more Americans will be reluctant to follow its recommendations — now and in the future. That’ll create major problems when the next pandemic inevitably arrives.

Sally C. Pipes is the president, CEO, and Thomas W. Smith Fellow in Health Care Policy at the Pacific Research Institute. Her latest book is The False Promise of Single-Payer Health Care (Encounter).

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