Richmond Times-Dispatch

CDC’s call to cancel came just in time

- BY FAYE FLAM Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She has written for the Economist, The NewYork Times, TheWashing­ton Post, Psychology Today, Science and other publicatio­ns. © 2020, Bloomberg News. Distribute­d by Tribune Content Agency.

It’s a tough blow for Americans that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) more or less has urged us to cancel Thanksgivi­ng this year, but good news for the world that the agency is back in the driver’s seat when it comes to public messaging on the pandemic.

Without the CDC’s grounding influence, advice about the pandemic has been divisive and confusing. The most popular news stories on social media are meant not to inform, but to generate outrage. That’s diverted far too much focus to joggers, beachgoers and protesters.

Contact tracing studies are showing the disease primarily is being spread by people gathering indoors in private settings — at weddings, baby showers, birthday parties and holiday dinners. When people are with family and friends, they feel comfortabl­e gathering closer for longer, which makes disease transmissi­on more likely.

It’s too bad the new Thanksgivi­ng guidelines came so late, after many peoplemade plans. But the change was necessary. In most parts of the U.S., the odds are higher than ever that someone at a Thanksgivi­ng gathering unknowingl­y has the virus. And it’s only within the past couple of weeks that the situation has gotten this dire: New confirmed cases were 74,000 on Nov. 1 and 187,000 onNov. 19.

It’s the nature of an exponentia­lly expanding disease that it can move slowly at first and then suddenly start accelerati­ng. “Public health guidance has to evolve, too,” says Harvard epidemiolo­gist William Hanage. “The risks of infection now are very different from what they were in, say, August, and as a result public health advice has to move with it.”

And Thanksgivi­ng dinners tend to bring generation­s together in away that other sorts of social events don’t. While any COVID-19 patient can get sick enough to need hospitaliz­ation, people older than age 70 are vastly more likely to end up in a hospital, an ICU or the

morgue.

The CDC could do even better, though. It shouldn’t just tell people what not to do, but why. People are less likely to follow rules that seem arbitrary. We also resent rules that seem concocted to make politician­s look like they’re doing something, like travel restrictio­ns and curfews. When the CDC makes a recommenda­tion, it needs to explain why following it likely would keep people from being hospitaliz­ed or dying from COVID-19. What you want to do, Hanage says, is help people understand how the disease is spreading and what to do to prevent it.

That should mean a newfound focus on limiting social contacts. The reality is that people are unlikely to wear masks at social gatherings. And you can’t wear a maskwhile eating. Most Americans have gotten the message that all would be fine if everyone wore a mask in public. But talking face to face with others, says Hanage, is a much more likely disease-spreading activity than, say, passing on the street. And so it’s been private gatherings that are driving the current surge.

Another promising sign: The CDC’s Thanksgivi­ng message also showed an embrace of harm reduction, not total abstinence. That means focusing on the biggest threats and not browbeatin­g people over activities very unlikely to cause harm. Therewould be less pandemic fatigue if more people listened to experts such as Harvard’s Julia Marcus, who warned against shaming people for low-risk activities such as going to the

beach or letting kids play in playground­s.

The new CDC guidelines make it clear that the worst possible scenario is one in which big, multigener­ational groups take buses and trains from faroff points to meet up for a long indoor dinner. The guidelines suggest, correctly, that outdoor gatherings are less risky.

One reason fatigue is setting in is that media coverage has focused as much attention on small risks as big ones, and kept everyone on red alert for monthswhen many should have been at yellow— ready to respond if things got more dangerous.

One Iowa woman told The Wall Street Journal how she stayed inside for months, even though there were very few cases in her area. By fall, when cases there were extremely high and the risk vastly worse, she couldn’t take it anymore. She ended up in a bar with friends — and then in a hospital room.

Most critically, the CDCguidanc­e needs to reflect the kind of humility and transparen­cy that makes scientists worthy of our trust — admitting they might have had some things wrong early in the pandemic, when they knew less. Scientific understand­ing of this pandemic is amoving target. Changing guidance in response to new events or evidence should build public trust instead of eroding it.

 ?? THE ASSOCIATED­PRESS ?? Travelersw­ore face masks whilewalki­ng through
Miami Internatio­nal Airport this past Sunday. With the coronaviru­s surging, the CDC is urging Americans not to travel for Thanksgivi­ng and not to spend the holiday with people fromoutsid­e their households.
THE ASSOCIATED­PRESS Travelersw­ore face masks whilewalki­ng through Miami Internatio­nal Airport this past Sunday. With the coronaviru­s surging, the CDC is urging Americans not to travel for Thanksgivi­ng and not to spend the holiday with people fromoutsid­e their households.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA