With the release of new Covid-19 guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday, it seems clear that federal health officials have embraced the idea that it’s time to learn to live with the virus. It is a signal that many will interpret as permission to return to our normal pre-pandemic life. But each time federal guidelines are relaxed, millions of Americans lose additional protections against possible Covid infection.
Indeed, after the release of the new guidelines on quarantining, testing and screening for Covid-19, headlines quickly proclaimed that the CDC is “facilitating school counseling” and “marks a new phase in [the] pandemic.” The message was aggravated by a CDC official saying “Covid-19 is here to stay,” so the new guidelines “help us get to a point where Covid-19 no longer seriously 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 is ending “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 officials and members of the public scratching their heads. Ultimately, these new guidelines are another example of confusing and opaque communication surrounding Covid. Instead of highlighting the lingering dangers of the ongoing pandemic and the policies needed to protect as many people as possible, the message being pushed is that restrictions are easing.
It’s been 2 and a half years. More than 92 million people in the United States have fallen ill and 1 million have died. While it’s true that we’re no longer running out of ventilators and far fewer Americans are dying, there are still over 34,000 hospitalizations and around 400 deaths every day from Covid, and both of those trend lines are flat – don’t get much worse or better; a constant toll of disease and death.
This new direction may signal a strategic shift in the country’s prevention strategy, but is everyone ready for this shift as well? If you are under 60, healthy, vaxxed and boosted, the data suggests that you are very unlikely to become seriously ill or die from Covid. But what about all the people who don’t fit those criteria? What if you were one of more than half of all Americans with a chronic disease, or one of more than 7 million immunocompromised people?
In a world where hours of operation and special accommodations for those most at risk of hospitalization and death are long gone, these relaxed criteria leave people with chronic illnesses, disabilities or immunocompromised even further behind.
Encouraging masking on the one hand while relaxing guidance on the other will leave many school administrators, elected officials and members of the public scratching their heads.
How come we have become numb to the loss of 400 people every day? Think about what you would do to save someone 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 this concern for one life translate into saving 400 people, day after day after day?
The new CDC guidelines come at a critical time, as schools prepare to open and Covid funding dries up. Although the guidelines are not binding laws, they will make it increasingly difficult for states and cities to maintain or introduce stricter prevention policies. And they will leave responsible and vulnerable people who try to protect themselves by wearing a mask exposed to increased ridicule, isolation and even discrimination.
No one is suggesting we go back to lockdowns, but we can do a much better job of communicating that this pandemic is far from over. Despite how embarrassing it may seem, we must all continue to do our part to protect ourselves, our loved ones and the most vulnerable among us. This means continuing to monitor Covid infections, hospitalizations and deaths, and supporting local authorities to protect everyone in their communities.
As a nation, we must recognize the continued threat of Covid and take appropriate action to minimize infection rates for all Americans. What we see from the CDC is a dull yellow “proceed with caution” sign. And the risk is that millions of Americans will miss out.