On March 29, Rochelle Walensky, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, shared “the recurring feeling I have of impending doom.” Later that day, she gave MSNBC viewers some good news: “Our data from the CDC today suggests, you know, that vaccinated people do not carry the virus, don’t get sick.”
Three days later, a spokesman for the CDC took it back: “Dr. Walensky spoke broadly during this interview. It’s possible that some people who are fully vaccinated could get COVID-19. The evidence isn’t clear whether they can spread the virus to others. We are continuing to evaluate the evidence.”
The CDC’s recommendations on travel have also been confusing.
In March, it delayed issuing guidelines for people who have been vaccinated, leading to complaints of political interference from President Joe Biden's administration. On April 2, it updated its website to say that people who have been fully vaccinated “can travel safely within the United States” but should take precautions such as mask-wearing to protect others.
The same day, though, Walensky said that “while we believe that fully vaccinated people can travel at low risk to themselves, CDC is not recommending travel at this time due to the rising number of cases.”
The CDC hasn’t said, though, that it’s recommending against travel by vaccinated people.
Walensky is not alone in providing whiplash along with COVID-19 guidance.
Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, notoriously went from discouraging mask use early in 2020 (“people keep fiddling with the mask and they keep touching their face”) to encouraging it later.
He has given conflicting accounts of why his advice changed. His most frequent explanation is that at the outset, masks needed to be conserved for the benefit of health-care providers and the ill.
A lot of public health experts have been “underselling the vaccine,” others among them have noted. They have emphasized that the protection the vaccines confer is not complete and may fade over time, and told people they will still have to wear masks and avoid large gatherings after inoculation.
All these experts deserve some slack. The stakes and the scrutiny have been higher than ever. They have had to convey information about a little-understood virus to tens of millions of people with less scientific literacy than themselves. Errors and miscommunication were inevitable.
But there is a troubling through-line to many of the most damaging episodes of public-health messaging in the pandemic: a fear of candor. Authorities held back from saying what they believed to be true because they thought it would elicit undesirable behaviors from the public.
Tell people that masks are helpful, and they will scoop them all up (or use them badly). Tell them vaccines will protect them, and the norm of masking will collapse.
These fears weren’t baseless. But lack of candor has had serious costs.
Confusion is one of them: Even reasonably attentive people have been left in the dark about the full benefits of vaccination.
Another is that withholding the truth can also cause counterproductive reactions. Public-health experts and government officials want Americans to be vaccinated; letting them know that the risk of transmitting COVID-19 once you have been vaccinated is low would strengthen their motivation to get the shots.
But the biggest risk is that distrust of the public will be repaid by distrust from the public. And there is some evidence that this has happened.
Trust in the CDC fell by 16 points between the spring and fall of 2020, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s polling. In the Economist/YouGov’s polling, distrust of the CDC among Republicans rose from 32% last summer to 48% in March. Distrust of Fauci has jumped, too. That increase was again concentrated among Republicans, 63% of whom lack confidence in his medical advice.
Republican officials, especially former President Donald Trump, have done a lot to move those numbers. But missteps like the 180 on masks surely contributed to the trends, too, making it easier for Trump to sow doubt.
That doubt is now an obstacle to ending the COVID-19 pandemic. Among those Americans with no plans for vaccination, majorities do not trust either Fauci or the CDC. The credibility of public health as an enterprise may well be weaker, too, when we face the next deadly contagion.
Walensky prefaced her remarks about “impending doom” by noting that when she took her job, she made a promise: “I would tell you the truth even if it was not the news we wanted to hear.”
If they want people to listen, they will have to do something even harder: Tell the truth even if it is not the news they think people can handle.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.