The Corner

Politics & Policy

Politics in Everything: CDC Edition

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters in Atlanta, Ga. (Tami Chappell/Reuters)

Follow the science has been the cri de coeur of many during this crisis. And yes, we should follow the science, except apparently when that isn’t convenient to the powers at be.

Lots of people have already commented on how the decision to reopen schools in many states have been driven by politics rather than science. Corey DeAngelis and Christos Makridis had a paper on this a few months ago:

The COVID-19 pandemic led to widespread school closures affecting millions of K-12 students in the United States in the spring of 2020. Groups representing teachers have pushed to reopen public schools virtually in the fall because of concerns about the health risks associated with reopening in person. In theory, stronger teachers’ unions may more successfully influence public school districts to reopen without in-person instruction. Using data on the reopening decisions of 835 public school districts in the United States, we find that school districts in locations with stronger teachers’ unions are less likely to reopen in person even after we control semi-parametrically for differences in local demographic characteristics. These results are robust to four measures of union strength, various potential confounding characteristics, and a further disaggregation to the county level. We also do not find evidence to suggest that measures of COVID-19 risk are correlated with school reopening decisions.

And yet, as they note, “We also do not find evidence to suggest that measures of COVID-19 risk are correlated with school reopening decisions.” Here is some good evidence of what the data show.

Political interference, rather than data, could also have been at play in the development if the latest CDC school-reopening guidelines. Many have spoken out about how these guidelines are too stringent, do not follow the science, and seem to have been the product of some significant political pressure. Yet, the CDC doesn’t seem to budge. Two days ago, a group of scientists whose research was cited by the CDC has even openly accused the agency of ignoring their positive findings, or even misinterpreting their research, about low transmission rates in schools. A tidbit from their op-ed:

The recent school reopening guidance released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is an example of fears influencing and resulting in misinterpretation of science and harmful policy. . .

Like in so many states, California and Illinois schools are being hamstrung by the CDC guidance. The guidance does not take into account the data we have regarding little disease transmission in schools. Nor, although the guidance cites the work performed across Wisconsin districts performed by our group and published in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, does it take that data and new analyses from that data set into account . . .

States are getting the message and passing rules allowing for 3-6 feet of spacing in schools using masking, why hasn’t the CDC?

Good question. Now, this could be explained by the fact that the CDC employees who wrote the guidelines can’t read research results, but I am not sure that’s any better than assuming political pressure or counterproductive risk aversion.

But apparently, the same political interference is happening with travel. Over at View from the Wing, Gary Leff reports the following:

The CDC tried to revise its guidelines for travel based on the science, but they were blocked by the Biden administration from doing so. CDC guidance still remains not to travel.

But the science tells us something different. I outlined much of what we know about vaccines and what that means for travel, from researchers studying infections and also offered the analysis of medical experts. We know that vaccines both protect the individual and protect others.

He has more here.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration is happily bailing out airlines’ shareholders and creditors once again as part of the monster mostly not-COVID-related COVID-19 relief bill.

I wish people would learn from these incidents, and others, that government agencies like the CDC are political institutions too, and that politicians are influenced by, you guessed it, politics.

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