‘Fast-moving science': Is CDC director right defending agency credibility?

Fact Box

  • Rochelle Walensky, CDC director, addressed the agency’s credibility after memes surfaced on January 7, 2022, saying, “We at the CDC are 12,000 people who are working 24-7 following the science with an ever-evolving nature in the midst of a really fast moving pandemic. [...] we will continue to improve how we communicate to the American public. This is fast-moving science.” 
  • On January 4, 2022, the CDC reported that data shows that most SARS-CoV-2 transmission occurs in the early stages of infection between “one day before symptom onset and declines within one week of symptom onset, with an average period of infectiousness and risk of transmission between 2-3 days before and 8 days after symptom onset.” 
  • The CDC released new COVID-19 quarantine recommendations on December 27, 2021, shortening the isolation period from 10 days to five days given no symptoms or lessening symptoms (without fever). The following five days should be accompanied by masks to minimize the spread of the virus.
  • As of January 10, 2022, 207.7 million people have been vaccinated in the United States which is 62.5% of the population, while 74.3% have had at least one dose.
  • Johns Hopkins research shows COVID spikes nationwide have been rising at a higher rate than before the vaccines were available despite more than half the country being fully vaccinated.

Andrew (Yes)

The CDC has had years of operation as one of the world’s preeminent scientific voices on matters of public health. It continues to evaluate and interpret huge volumes of data on the ongoing pandemic situation. The Omicron variant of the coronavirus is a new threat, and scientists are learning about it all the time; it’s not surprising that messages might change with new information. Though the agency may have had some slightly mixed messaging lately, it will certainly take more than a few viral memes to counteract the decades of good work keeping Americans safe. 

It should also be noted that the CDC must present its messages in the current political climate, where large portions of the public outright reject scientific advice regarding the pandemic. While this doesn’t excuse sloppy messaging, it does illustrate the difficult position the agency has found itself in. 

It’s not surprising that comedians, pundits, and ordinary people are aiming their frustration at the CDC at this current moment. Some combination of stress relief and genuine attempts at humor is perhaps appropriate given the gravity of the pandemic and the pressures it has put on society. However, these jokes about the CDC’s credibility are nothing more than that—jokes. People who make memes churn them out at incredible speed on any vaguely popular topic of the day; it should come as no surprise that the CDC should find itself a target of this type of humor. Likewise, comedians and pundits must address current events to stay relevant, and generating outrage is always good for ratings. These jokes, memes, and monologs on the CDC’s credibility should be seen as nothing more than attempts at levity. 

Curtice (No)

The science surrounding COVID-19 may indeed be somewhat “fast-moving,” as CDC director Rochelle Walensky recently stated. However, that doesn’t mean the CDC needs to be incoherent, contradictory, or ineffectual. To its discredit, it has at times been all three. There is no shortage of examples. Recall when the CDC, in conjunction with the FDA, decided to halt the use of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine for ten days due to the risk of blood clots. The risk ended up being minuscule, yet it hurt not only the CDC’s credibility but also that of the J & J vaccine.

In March 2020, the CDC advised Americans they did not need to wear a facemask, only to reverse the advisory shortly thereafter, stating Americans needed to wear a “cloth face cover,” even though cloth and surgical masks do not evade airborne virus particles.   

In February 2021, the CDC issued guidance for school reopenings that was guided less by “science” and more by the predetermined conclusions of the teachers’ union lobby. More recently, the CDC halved the number of isolation days for an infected person who is asymptomatic. While this may have been a wise course of action, it was no doubt based more on real-world implications of getting people with jobs back to doing their jobs, but it was not necessarily based on science. 

The CDC, Dr. Fauci, and the WHO have all issued erroneous and contradictory advisories during the pandemic. As a result, Americans have been confused, and the medical bureaucracies have lost much credibility. At times, it’s as if the CDC is being run by people less than professionals.

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