CDC underperforming in building nation’s trust

In the presence of a constantly mutating virus, it is of the utmost importance that communication between the general public and the nation’s top scientists remain not only transparent but consistent as well. 

In recent weeks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated their COVID-19 guidelines and recommendations for K-12 schools, most notably shortening the required quarantine period from ten to five days. If you are/were one of 65 million cases confirmed in the United States, then this should come off as quite significant news. And it is! So much so that the CDC decided to hold their first telebriefing in months. Yes, you heard that correctly: months. The Jan. 7 briefing is the first of its kind since the Omicron variant of COVID-19 has taken over the United States, overwhelming hospitals and proving to be the most contagious strains of the virus we have seen yet. All of this goes on to beg the question: why has the CDC not been in the public’s ear like this before? If you are wondering, then you are not the only one. 

In an interview with NPR, Dr. Tom Frieden, CDC director under the Obama administration, said, “there are dedicated scientists at CDC who are the world’s experts in a lot of these issues, and they need to be speaking directly to the public along with Dr. Walensky.” Walensky, the current director of the CDC, decided that they would finally hold the briefing because “we had heard clearly over the last week that there was interest in hearing from us independently.”

Who would have thought? 

Probably those who voted Donald Trump out of office in November 2020. 

All along the campaign trail, President Biden was committed to beating the pandemic, restoring public trust in the federal government during the process. Albeit, the Biden administration has done an acceptable job administering vaccines and restoring the American workforce to a place that impressively contrasts to where it was at the end of the Trump presidency. Yet, public trust does in no way feel restored. After all, it is hard to trust something when you are receiving mixed signals. If a lady came up to you on the street and started speaking French, odds are that you would not ask her to babysit your kids that night. And although that scenario may just be seen as some sort of innocent allegory, the CDC has done a genuinely poor job communicating explicitly. 

“Scientists and public health experts will speak directly to you. That is why you are going to be hearing a lot more from Dr. Fauci again — not from the president but from the real genuine experts and scientists.” 

That is a direct quote from President Biden just a day after his inauguration at the start of last year. The only problem looking back on this statement is that both him and his administration seem to have forgotten about the first line: “scientists and public experts will speak directly to you.” One would assume that after hearing Biden’s confidence in his statement that the CDC would make briefings like that of last week a regular occurrence. That assumption was wrong. Throughout the entirety of 2021, the CDC held a mere two telebriefings. Two. Conversely, the Trump administration held nearly two dozen in the year prior. So why is it that Biden’s administration, who seemed to be so hell-bent on restoring public trust, is not taking advantage of one of the most respected scientific institutions in the world in the CDC? 

Infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist at New York University Dr. Celine Gounder agrees, telling NPR, “I would love to hear more from them just about — what is the science that they are doing? How do they go about it? What is their process?” The closest thing that Americans have gotten to the CDC answering these questions, is Chief Medical Advisor Anthony Fauci making guest appearances on television news programs or occasional White House briefings. Neither are exactly the places where one would look to know whether or not they can send their kid to school after they have quarantined for 5 days after close contact. Much like Grounder’s statements, putting a human face to these topics would be much more comforting than any other form of informing the public.

Still, despite promising to hold more briefings in the future, neither Walenksy or the CDC have agreed to how often they plan to hold such meetings. After all, why make a promise if it means you have to keep it? As long as the CDC does not come out with a meeting schedule, then they do not have to uphold one. As a result, it is of the utmost importance that they do create a schedule. If Americans knew that they would be updated on how to manage COVID-19 say, every two weeks for example, then it would be much easier to, as President Biden so badly wanted on the campaign trail, beat the pandemic. 

The United States government has some of the world’s highest esteemed scientists at their disposal. It is time that they face the spotlight, giving the world a single, recognizable and clear voice to follow. 

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