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How the CDC loses our trust by shaving the truth to serve a broader public health strategy

Focused on goals to increase compliance with pandemic masks and vaccinations, the CDC has actually undermined its own credibility. 

“I can’t escape the conclusion that the CDC is cherry-picking facts to shape public response,” writes Marj Halperin, a Chicago-based communications specialist. “CDC calculations like this overshadow credible guidance that builds public trust.”
AP Photos

The TV reporter sits opposite three health care workers, each explaining why they won’t be vaccinated against COVID-19.

One nurse shares a litany of complaints about the Centers for Disease Control. The reporter arches his eyebrows and asks in a wondrous tone: “So, you don’t trust the CDC?”

Her emphatic reply: “I do not trust the CDC.”

This was weeks ago, when I was thanking the vaccine for a feeling of freedom. So I was stunned by that interview, even angry with health care workers who refuse to act responsibly for the good of the community and, especially, the well-being of their patients.

I remain convinced that all health care workers should be vaccinated, and I applaud the growing list of hospitals and clinics requiring employees to do so. But I now find far more area of agreement than disagreement with the nurse who doesn’t trust the CDC.

Over time, I’ve recognized CDC communications missteps that minimize facts in favor of a broader public health strategy. Focused on goals to increase public health compliance, the CDC has actually undermined its own credibility.

We could easily see that masks were important in those early months; they were the only tool we had. But the CDC initially hedged. While states scrambled to get necessary personal protective equipment for overflowing hospitals, the CDC’s advice was confusing — made even more so when a jealous president sidelined infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci to run his own “scientific” briefings.

By the end of 2020, the World Health Organization issued a memo clarifying mask guidance, saying firmly that, “depending on the type,” masks can be used “for the “protection of healthy persons.” The CDC took 10 days to follow with its own, similar advice. By that time, many of us were already making and sharing our own masks.

The CDC seemed to be parsing out facts as part of a broader, manipulative strategy: would advising masks for all lead to hoarding, which could deny masks to those who need them most? Would wearing a mask diminish our hand-washing efforts?

So we made our own masks. In July of 2020, the CDC advice shifted to telling us that, yes, masks are helpful, and we should all wear them.

And then the vaccine debate began. Could we trust a product of Trump’s “Warp Speed” project? It was Dr. Fauci who calmed my nerves and convinced me that, even though the name was silly, the science was serious.

So I took my turn and got Shot One and Shot Two, leading to those too brief weeks of relative freedom before the Delta variant took over, bringing with it more confusing CDC messages.

Are the vaccines holding against Delta? Do vaxxed folks transmit the virus?

First, we were told no, then yes. Always, the mantra was that the vaccine is a strong barrier against “severe disease” even as studies began to show the efficacy against Delta waning. When Israel started administering booster shots July 30 and Pfizer proclaimed its vaccine needs a booster, pressure intensified on the CDC.

Yet, Fauci whiffed again.

In an Aug. 11 interview, he danced around the question, admitting only that, “Inevitably there will be a time when we’ll have to give boosts.” He added, “Right now, at this moment, other than the immune-compromised, we won’t be giving boosters to people.”

As a communications professional, I can tell you that “at this moment” was a carefully chosen phrase. I suspect it was spoken even while planning was underway for the booster announcement that followed just seven days later. “People” will indeed get the booster starting in just a month.

Of course, science changes, and CDC messages must also change as new data is collected. But, mapping the flow of information, I can’t escape the conclusion that the CDC is cherry-picking facts to shape public response. Would admitting a dwindling efficacy of the vaccine further invigorate anti-vaxxers?

CDC calculations like this overshadow credible guidance that builds public trust.

It didn’t have to be this way.

Tell us that N95 masks are in short supply and must be channeled to front-line workers. Encourage the rest of us to sew cloth masks. While the Former Guy’s administration seemed preoccupied with how the boss looked in a mask, honest talk from governors such as J.B. Pritzker of Illinois boosted their credibility as the CDC’s sank.

Tell us that boosters are necessary for all of us, and that you’ll make them available with a “warp speed” data review. Explain what makes eight months the magic moment.

Finally, answer the question we all should be asking: Is the United States doing enough to share our vaccine supply with underserved nations of the world? That reflects on the CDC and the Biden administration’s credibility, too, because we elected these leaders to demonstrate that, sometimes, “America First” just isn’t enough.

Marj Halperin is a communications consultant to nonprofits and government agencies. Her political commentary has been featured on WGN TV, CTV Canada, and WCPT radio.

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