Poor COVID messaging makes responsible behavior difficult

Alonzo Osche

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The CDC issued new mask guidance in response to the delta variant.

Associated Press file photo

On Thursday, Gov. Greg Abbott issued a new executive order that will make it harder for local officials to require face coverings, including in schools, and forbids the state from mandating vaccines.

“Today’s executive order will provide clarity and uniformity in the Lone Star State’s continued fight against COVID-19,” said Abbott in an accompanying statement. “The new Executive Order emphasizes that the path forward relies on personal responsibility rather than government mandates.”

Whether you agree with the directive or believe, in light of new masking guidance from the CDC and vaccine mandates for federal employees, that to limit government authority during a pandemic is a fool’s errand, you have to give Abbott credit for his consistency and simplicity in messaging: Personal responsibility > government mandates.

That’s certainly more than can be said for many public health authorities, who have muddled and undermined their own recommendations with remarkable frequency throughout the pandemic.

This week’s about-face on masks is yet another example.

After months of reassuring Americans that being fully-vaccinated neutralized their ability to spread COVID, and weeks after issuing guidance that vaccinated individuals no longer needed to wear masks, the agency is now recommending that even vaccinated people should again be masking indoors.

The reason, according to CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, is that “in rare occasions, some vaccinated people infected with the delta variant after vaccination may be contagious and pass the virus to others.”

It’s understandable that public health guidance is subject to change as new research emerges; that’s a given.

But the explanation was initially offered without supporting data. An internal CDC document upon which the recommendation was apparently made has since shed some light on the decision, but the data contained therein has drawn criticism for its accuracy.

Of course we know from experience that data (let alone good data) isn’t always the driving force behind public health recommendations.

That certainly appears to be the case when it comes to the CDC’s other recent recommendation that students as well as all teachers and staff mask during the school year, regardless of vaccination status.

This recommendation comes even though we know from experience (and voluminous research) that COVID is less deadly to children than other common illnesses like the flu.

This is true even for the delta variant.

It is harder for children to get COVID and harder for them to spread it.

And there are legitimate reasons to worry that the masks we make children wear have potentially serious negative consequences, both physical and developmental.

What’s more is that it is becoming increasingly clear that the virus surges and declines in ways that human behavior cannot seem to control or explain.

The uptick in cases, courtesy of the delta variant, is real and concerning.

But even the New York Times, which has not always regarded public health recommendations uncritically, acknowledges that the delta outbreaks in both India and the UK rose and then plunged without any clear behavioral explanation.

Much to our collective chagrin, human efforts to contain the virus — masking, distancing, shut-downs and even vaccines (if Walensky is correct) — appear to have some control over viral spread, but to a far more limited effect than we like to admit.

That takes us back to Gov. Abbott and his message of personal responsibility.

While that message doesn’t resonate with everyone — particularly when it’s easier to blame unfortunate circumstances on the behaviors of everyone else — it’s starting to have the ring of truth.

But to behave responsibly, people need to have good information from sources they can trust, who acknowledge both what they know and what they don’t.

I certainly hope Texans will behave responsibly. When are they going to have the information necessary to do so?

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Cynthia Allen joined the Star-Telegram Editorial Board in 2014 after a decade of working in government and public affairs in Washington, D.C. She is a member of the Editorial Board and writes a weekly opinion column on a wide array of topics, including politics, faith and motherhood.

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