With the release of new Covid-19 guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Thursday, it seems clear that federal health officials have embraced the notion that it’s time to learn to live with the virus. It’s a signal that many will interpret as permission to return to our normal, pre-pandemic lives. But each time federal guidance is relaxed, millions of Americans lose further protections from possible Covid infection.
Indeed, after the new guidelines on Covid-19 quarantining, testing and screening came out, headlines soon proclaimed that the CDC “eases school guidance” and “marks a new phase in [the] pandemic.” The message was compounded by a CDC official asserting that “Covid-19 is here to stay,” so the new guidance “helps us move to a point where Covid-19 no longer severely disrupts our daily lives.”
The CDC still recommends indoor masking in counties with high community transmission — where about 60% of the U.S. population lives. However, it no longer recommends testing in most cases and ends “test-to-stay” programs in schools, which allowed students exposed to a known infected person to avoid quarantine as long as they were asymptomatic and continued to test negative. This relegates important public health tools to the sidelines.
Encouraging masking on the one hand while relaxing guidance on the other will leave many school administrators, elected leaders and members of the public scratching their heads. The bottom line is that this new guidance is another example of confusing and opaque communication surrounding Covid. Instead of emphasizing the continued dangers of the ongoing pandemic and the policies needed to protect the most amount of people, the message being emphasized is that restrictions are easing up.
It’s been 2 ½ years. More than 92 million people in the United States have gotten sick and 1 million have died. While it’s true that we are no longer running out of ventilators and far fewer Americans are dying, there are still more than 34,000 hospitalizations and about 400 deaths every day from Covid, and those two trend lines are flat — not getting much worse or better; a steady toll of sickness and death.
This new guidance may be signaling a strategic shift in the nation’s prevention strategy, but is everyone equally ready for that shift? If you are under 60, healthy, vaxxed and boosted, the data suggest you are very unlikely to become severely ill or die from Covid. But what about all the people who don’t fit those criteria? What if you are among the more than half of all Americans with a chronic disease, or one of the 7 million-plus who are immunocompromised?
In a world where special shopping hours and accommodations for those at greater risk of hospitalization and death are long gone, these relaxed criteria further leave behind people who are chronically ill, disabled or immunocompromised.
Encouraging masking on the one hand while relaxing guidance on the other will leave many school administrators, elected leaders and members of the public scratching their heads.
How is it that we’ve become numb to losing 400 people each day? Just think what you would do to save one person from drowning. Would you dive in to save them, or at least throw them a rope? How hard would you fight to save another human from imminent death? And why doesn’t that concern for one life translate to saving 400 people — day after day after day?
The new CDC guidance comes at a critical time, when schools are preparing to open and Covid funding is drying up. While the guidelines are not binding laws, they will make it increasingly difficult for states and cities to maintain or propose more stringent preventive policies. And they will leave responsible and vulnerable people who are trying to protect themselves by wearing a mask open to increased ridicule, isolation and even discrimination.
No one is suggesting that we go back to lockdowns, but we can do a much better job of communicating that this pandemic is far from over. Despite how inconvenient it may seem, we all must continue to do our part to protect ourselves, our loved ones and the most vulnerable among us. That means continuing to monitor Covid infections, hospitalizations and deaths, and giving local officials support to protect everyone in their communities.
We as a nation must recognize the continuing threat of Covid and take the appropriate steps to minimize infection rates for all Americans. What we are seeing from the CDC is a dull yellow “proceed with caution” sign. And the risk is millions of Americans will be speeding right by it.