The United States does not have a clear vision of how to reach a post-pandemic world. Over the last two years, we have developed exceptional scientific tools for the mitigation, treatment and prevention of COVID. But we stumbled upon their implementation. Many of these failures occurred because our public health messages were unclear on how to use these tools, which include vaccines, masks, tests, antiviral drugs, and temporary activity restrictions. The result is confusion in society that has made us vulnerable to the disease and unable to respond to new and more portable variants such as BA.2 and its sub-lines, which are infecting more and more people across the nation. America has already lost one million people during this pandemic. There may be future mutations that could be more deadly and highly contagious, and we are still terribly unprepared for them.
Recovering from these mistakes will require a bold change in the direction of our national health messages. Now that the number of cases is increasing, it is time for the Biden administration to launch a new communication campaign through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one with the resources and structure to prepare Americans to move forward. The campaign should start with drawing a line in the sand: how many deaths are we willing to tolerate? Can we accept 50,000 deaths a year as part of our “new normal”? 100,000? With our hard-won ability to prevent disease deaths, it would be morally disgusting to lose tens of thousands more Americans to COVID. These deaths orphaned hundreds of thousands of children and, along with serious illness, destroyed a generation of older Americans, shattered family structure and wreaked havoc on the economy.
At the beginning of the year, the Omicron option made our vulnerability painfully clear. The increase in cases caused by this highly transmitted version of the virus has completely upset American society, causing 3.6 million absences from work only in January. Hospitals, already struggling with staff shortages, burnouts and inadequate resources, were again overcrowded. Failures in restriction have made it a relatively easy option far more deadly than the dangerous Delta variant that precedes it. In February, the country was on average more than 15,000 deaths from COVID per week. The million deaths we have suffered is a record far worse than any other rich nation.
Why didn’t we manage to defend ourselves? The main reason is that federal agencies are focusing on a vaccination strategy only when inoculations became available. Theirs intermittent efforts the implementation of other security measures was rare and slow and was often rejected by the courts. At the local level, governments have rushed to abandon almost all mitigation strategies mask mandates to vaccination requirements. The ways in which measures have been introduced and repealed vary widely across states and counties, causing confusion about how dangerous the virus remains and what precautions remain.
IN Community levels for COVID-19 The assessment issued by the CDC is an example of a rapid change in messages that confuses more people than it helps. At the end of February, the CDC switched overnight from a tool focused on new infections to one that relies primarily on hospital admissions and employment. As a result, many counties that were once high-risk areas have suddenly become low-risk. The Agency added new behavioral recommendations to these revised assessments. For example, then no longer recommended indoor masking for medium risk districts. The change seems difficult to justify: there is delay of 3 to 10 days between the onset of symptoms and hospitalization, a 2020 study reported, and this caused a constant lag between peaks in reported cases and the subsequent increase in hospitalizations. With new cases that are not poorly tracked and their trends not highlighted, the new system will be much less useful for making everyday decisions about boarding a bus or train or entering a crowded office.
What’s worse is that many of these CDC recommendations leave decisions entirely to personal and idiosyncratic judgment. Visit every gym in the country and you will find members who take care of disinfecting treadmills and weights, even while training without a mask in poorly ventilated areas. These bad defensive behaviors reflect CDC messages. The agency’s announcements put vaccination and camouflage at the top of its list of preventive measures, but do a little to differentiate the importance of these measures than those that are much less important, such as cleaning surfaces. The CDC is still doing it I do not recommend clearly the use of N95 and KN95 masks, although there is strong evidence of the superior effectiveness of N95 available for years before the pandemic. Instead, the agency is ambiguous, emphasizing comfort and saying that people should “wear the most protective mask possible, which fits well and which you will wear constantly“In January this year, the agency finally clarified that N95 masks are more protective than others. (At the beginning of the pandemic that took place warned the Americans of these masks due to concerns about shortages of supplies for health professionals).
In some cases, changes in CDC positions have been caused by changes in our scientific understanding of the disease. But in many others the changes seem arbitrary or driven by public pressure and business interests. In December 2021, the Agency reduced the recommended periods of isolation for infected healthcare workers from 10 days to seven, adding this “Isolation time can be further reduced if there is a shortage of staff.” A week later, they reduced the recommended periods of isolation and quarantine for the general population to just five days, whether or not the person is still infected and does not require a negative result. test. And yet the agency itself notes that “People can continue to spread the virus to others [eight] days after the onset of their symptoms. “
CDC Director Rochelle Valensky acknowledged that the goal is to allow people to “continue their daily lives” A few experts notedHowever, while this move was necessary to prevent economic tensions in certain sectors, a five-day isolation period and the lack of a test requirement were not enough to minimize the risk.
This year, Valenski gave mixed messages to the public about wearing masks. In an interview on February 21, she described Wearing a mask is “easy” and “painless”, but also calls protective coatings the “scarlet letter” of the pandemic. She added that they were “annoying” and an obstacle to “living our lives normally”. These conflicting claims about a critical life-saving tool have added a dangerous stigma to it and are a real failure in public health communications.
A new and successful communication campaign must begin by determining how many deaths and illnesses the country can accept from this virus in the future. The administration needs to bring together public health experts to set these goals as low, achievable numbers. Then Congress – which recently objected to spending money on prevention and treatment – must allocate resources to match them.
It is also urgent for the federal government to publish useful criteria for when and how people should use masks, social distancing and mass tests. These tools are very effective, but difficult to continue for long periods, so everyone needs to know when they should be applied and when they can be stopped. These short-term measures must be formulated as protection and must be easy for the public to accept when key indicators start to rise. They must be accompanied by a number of contingency plans, which have also been widely publicized, so that the public is ready to respond as the pandemic continues to shift and develop.
Reaching and motivating the public will also require significant long-term changes in the way we disseminate public health information. These efforts must go beyond the guidelines and academic articles of the CDC; we need the participation of celebrities, interactive (and attractive) online media, educational materials and programs, as well as personal contact. We need ambassadors and voices from different communities, especially those who are more marginalized or at risk, and materials in many languages.
The reality is that local authorities and courts have made this type of coordination difficult by actively resisting federal guidelines. But their opposition was made possible by the lack of a clear top-down vision, starting with the Trump administration, frequent hesitations about key directions, and repeated failures to establish links between the guidelines and basic science. Consecutive and prolonged public announcements can also serve as a countermeasure against misinformation and misinformation.
We know much more about how to treat COVID and mitigate risks than we did two years ago. But we have failed to translate this knowledge into clear messages that can encourage collective action to move us to the “new normal.” There is an urgent need for a national communication strategy on public health that is consistent and as free from political influence as possible in order to close the space between knowledge and action.
This is an article for opinion and analysis and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.