Hot N Cold

July 30, 2021

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Every once in a while circumstances are so unique they demand reference to a Katy Perry song

You’re hot then you’re cold

You’re yes then you’re no

You’re in then you’re out

You’re up then you’re down

As kids get ready to head back to school this must be what they are thinking about the adults running their country and schools. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) changed its guidance this week on mask wearing and it is throwing schools into a tailspin. Specifically, in a major reversal, they said this week that the “CDC recommends universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.” You’re hot then you’re cold.

You know it’s bad when the New York Times says you have a “communications problem.”  And that’s exactly what they said this week about the CDC’s new guidance. This “communications problem” is confusing at best, but irresponsible at worst. I’ve been avoiding this topic, as I know it’s fraught and highly controversial. But in a blog about communication, I can no longer ignore one of the biggest communications failures in recent memory…and that’s saying something!

If we are being generous, we would say that the CDC (a.k.a. Biden Administration) has gone from hot to cold because circumstances have changed. The Delta variant is surging and not enough Americans have been vaccinated. The result is a rise in cases and hospitalizations, particularly where vaccination rates remain low (as outlined here).

Here are the myriad of messages we have all heard, either from the government or highly regarded sources:

  • Fully vaccinated people have an extremely low chance of getting the virus, and even if they contract it, they have an extremely low chance of getting seriously ill or being hospitalized – even with the Delta variant.
  • Vaccinated people cannot transmit the virus.
  • Children, even while not vaccinated (because vaccines are not approved yet for young children), have an extremely low infection rate and an even smaller chance of getting seriously ill.
  • Schools have not been the source of community spread.
  • The Delta variant is extremely contagious
  • The vast majority (like 90%) of new cases and hospitalizations are due to the Delta variant.

All of these messages are based in science. But it seems we are adding polling to the sciences these days…. The only message above that is subject to potential new scrutiny is that vaccinated people cannot transmit the virus. It is looking like it’s possible for the vaccinated to transmit the Delta variant, but the science seems to still be trying to figure that out.

So let’s give on that point. Let’s assume vaccinated people can transmit the virus. So what?

Vaccines are fully available to anyone who wants one and is at risk of serious illness (a.k.a. being hospitalized). Vaccines are now easy to obtain and are free. While children under 12 can’t get vaccinated, they are at extremely low risk of serious illness.  What does all this mean the government guidance should be??

Well, it depends on your perspective. If you think the government’s job is to prevent any possibility of illness your message will be very different than if you think the government’s job is to determine what is generally in the public interest for the maximum number of Americans. And this is the dilemma the CDC finds itself in. It can’t decide.

At some point, the government needs to pivot and help the public do the same. At some point we need to stop being completely freaked out by COVID and temper our response and advice to be in line with other public health risks – like annual influenza. At this point COVID is still much more dangerous than the annual flu – much more easily transmitted, and deadlier. But with vaccines widely available, this soon becomes a matter of individual responsibility rather than community responsibility.

We did the community responsibility thing for over a year. We stayed away from one another. We stayed home. Closed schools. Closed businesses. We socially distanced. And we wore masks when indoors. We did all that because vaccines were not available and everyone was vulnerable. But now the situation is different. Those who are not vaccinated – the majority of them – are making a choice. One that they have the right to make. But when they make that choice, my responsibility to protect them ends. If someone is not vaccinated at this point, the responsibility to mask up, stay distanced and try to avoid being infected is on them, not the rest of us.

Unless the CDC knows something they are not telling us, this is what makes their new guidance so confusing and confounding. They are not telling us WHY.  They are telling us that even vaccinated people have to mask up indoors, including kids in schools. But why? Based on everything else we have been told this seems to cut across common sense. What is the government trying to prevent? And why is the media not doing its part to scrutinize the government’s goals and it’s message to the public? (The media’s failure on this topic is so complete and stunning, we will have to discuss it in a future post.)

When the government pulls a 180-degree reverse course on what it’s asking Americans to do, they need to be super clear about why. The majority of Americans are willing to follow government guidance – and are doing so. But the CDC, in its failure to communicate effectively about this, is risking this delicate reality. People may stop listening, or stop complying, or both.

I have been listening and watching closely. The only reasons I have seen them give for the new mask guidance are that the Delta variant is super contagious and cases are up among those who are not vaccinated.  In other words, to stop the spread among the unvaccinated. Okay…

I’m not sure this is possible. And, I’m not sure I’m motivated to go along. I’m vaccinated. I did what was required. I love my neighbors and did my part to help protect them, but now you will need to give me a REALLY good reason to put myself out when my neighbors are making a choice not to do the minimum to protect themselves.

We can’t hold our kids, our lively-hoods or economy hostage while we wait for the unvaccinated to be convinced. We must communicate clearly about the risks they are taking and then move on. This is not a time to vacillate between hot and cold. Our government must be clear about the data and what is expected from everyone as we attempt to get American life back to normal. Those who choose not to participate assume the risk for themselves.