The Biden administration’s mixed messages on COVID-19 discourage vaccination

Federal officials invited alarmist press coverage of breakthrough infections.

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Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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If you want more Americans to be vaccinated against COVID-19, emphasizing that they could still catch the disease and transmit it to others even after they get their shots may not be the best strategy.

Yet that is what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did last week, generating “alarmist” and “hyperbolic” press coverage that dismayed Biden administration officials, who rightly worried that it would deter vaccination.

Major news outlets deserve criticism for hyping the danger posed by breakthrough infections. But they were taking their cues from federal officials, who exaggerated that danger even while trying to reassure the public about the effectiveness of vaccines.

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With COVID-19 cases caused by the especially contagious delta variant of the coronavirus surging in many parts of the country, the main priority should be persuading vaccine-leery Americans that widespread inoculation is the key to conquering the pandemic and returning to normal life. Notwithstanding the delta variant, vaccines remain highly effective at preventing life-threatening COVID-19 symptoms, as reflected in the fact that vaccinated Americans account for a tiny share of hospitalizations and deaths.

It has always been clear that vaccines are not completely effective at preventing infection, and data from other countries suggest that the risk of breakthrough infections is higher now that the delta variant accounts for the vast majority of new cases. Yet unvaccinated people are still much more likely to be infected than unvaccinated people.

That point was frequently lost in the breathless reporting on the CDC’s decision to recommend that vaccinated Americans who live in “areas of substantial or high transmission” resume wearing face masks in public places. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky and Ben Wakana, deputy director of strategic communications and engagement for the White House COVID-19 Response Team, contributed to the confusion by grossly exaggerating the likelihood of breakthrough infections.

The estimates offered by Walensky and Wakana, which seemed to be based on a misunderstanding of the effectiveness rates reported in vaccine studies, implied that vaccinated people face a higher risk of infection than unvaccinated people do. That message was plainly inconsistent with the CDC’s repeated statements that breakthrough infections remain “rare” and that unvaccinated people account for “the vast majority” of virus transmission.

The official justification for the CDC’s new mask advice was evidence indicating that viral loads in nasal samples from vaccinated people infected by the delta variant were similar to viral loads in nasal samples from unvaccinated people. “High viral loads suggest an increased risk of transmission and raised concern that, unlike with other variants, vaccinated people infected with Delta can transmit the virus,” Walensky said on Friday, when the CDC published a study of a July outbreak in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

Contrary to what the ensuing press coverage implied, the CDC did not actually say that vaccinated carriers were just as likely to transmit the virus as unvaccinated carriers. On that score, the implications of the Provincetown study remain unclear, and researchers are still trying to determine the extent to which the Massachusetts cases described by the CDC were caused by vaccinated carriers.

“I want to be clear,” Walensky told reporters on Monday. “While vaccinated people can spread the virus if they get a breakthrough infection, the odds of them getting sick in the first place are far lower than [the odds for] those who are unvaccinated.”

That clarity is welcome, if belated. But leaving aside the misinformation disseminated by Walensky and Wakana, the CDC’s new mask guidance itself implied that vaccinated Americans are playing an important role in spreading the delta variant, even as Wakana emphasized that “vaccinated individuals represent a VERY SMALL amount of transmission occurring around the country.”

A recent increase in daily vaccination numbers suggests that the surge in COVID-19 cases and reports about dying patients who regretted their decision to eschew vaccines have persuaded some waverers. The Biden administration should focus on encouraging that trend instead of sending mixed messages that undermine public confidence in vaccines.

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine.

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