(Bloomberg Opinion) — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the federal agency charged with safeguarding public health, did just that on Tuesday. It recommended that vaccinated people in regions where the risk of Covid-19 infections has surged should wear masks indoors.
This was advice, not an order. It was guided by science and data, not by politics or personal whims. It represented an evolution in thinking, because Covid-19’s delta variant has sprinted across the country since May, when the CDC said vaccinated people could forego masks almost everywhere.
Nevertheless, some politicians, reporters and social media mavens rebelled against the news — reminding everyone that Covid-19 has brought, along with illness and death, much adolescent griping, and unrealistic demands for clarity amid a complex and often inscrutable pandemic. All of this in a privileged country rescued by the arrival of Covid-19 vaccines. It was as if the CDC had told people to wear handcuffs.
The agency became a punching bag. ABC, CBS, the Washington Post and Rolling Stone accused public health officials of making an “about-face.” “No, you’re not crazy. Yes, the CDC’s mask guidelines are confusing,” a MarketWatch headline whined. During an interview with Senate candidate J.D. Vance, whose state, Ohio, is being battered by the delta variant, the chyron on Fox News read, “Biden Admin Slammed Over Masks & Vaccine Reversal.” Real Clear Markets weighed in, too: “The CDC’s Hysterical Delta Flip-Flop Might Be Its Final Undoing.”
The Post also declared that the new CDC recommendation — rather than, say, the delta variant itself — might undermine momentum for an economic recovery and “cloud” prospects for return-to-work plans. “What just weeks ago seemed like a smooth return to pre-pandemic life suddenly felt shaky,” it said.
Local mask mandates have been political footballs for more than a year in the U.S., and delta-pummeled states such as Arkansas, Iowa, Texas and Florida have restricted them. Among the politicians who bashed the CDC for changing its guidance, Senator Roger Marshall, a Kansas Republican, predicted that “inconsistent CDC guidance will only lead to more vaccine hesitancy.” From the Senate floor, Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican who is not a scientist, declared that the CDC’s decision “was politics, it wasn’t science.” He added that the agency’s reputation had been shredded during the pandemic by inconsistent recommendations from Dr. Anthony Fauci (who runs the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, not the CDC).
On social media, condemnation of the CDC involved disinformation. “They want you to mask your children inside your own house. Even if you are vaccinated or have natural immunity,” complained Katie Pavlich, a conservative pundit, on Twitter. “This is madness.” The CDC’s new guidelines don’t call for masking kids at home.
Rochelle Walensky, the CDC’s director, said the guidelines were revised because new data indicated that even vaccinated people who experience rare breakthrough infections with the delta variant carry a high viral load, increasing the risk that they might infect others.
As my colleague Max Nisen noted, while the CDC hasn’t been a model of consistency, its updated guidelines are grounded in science and make sense. Masks help block transmission and protect other people, especially children. And the recommendation to use them again will last only until the delta outbreak is contained.
Long ago, in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, there was also lots of carping and frustration in response to the federal government’s heightened airport security protocols. Some of this was understandable, given the longer lines and shifting guidelines around what travelers were allowed to bring on planes. As more was learned about the threat to air travel, the rules were adjusted, and travelers learned to live with them.
As the pandemic continues to shift, Americans have had to adjust to that as well. So has the CDC. It’s up to the rest of us to stay calm and let public health officials do their job.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Timothy L. O’Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.