Mixed Medical Messages Create Covid Confusion
Public health efforts are undermined by muddled messaging
Schools will soon reopen, but health experts can’t agree whether masks are necessary in classrooms, leaving educators to fend for themselves. It’s yet another example of how scientific inconsistencies contribute to Covid skepticism and undermine efforts to bring the pandemic under control.
I work in a conservative school district with no mask requirements, where only 33 percent of the population is fully vaccinated. Last year, I taught behind plexiglass, clad in a face shield and mask.
Throughout the term, I told kids to ignore politicians and instead listen to doctors. Their message was: aside from vaccines, masks are the best way to avoid getting sick.
In May, I shed my facial coverings after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that fully-vaccinated people no longer needed them.
The CDC reiterated this stance in its recommendations for the upcoming school year, saying only the unvaccinated should wear masks.
That’s simple enough, until you look at back-to-school guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). The AAP is advising both students and teachers—including those vaccinated—to wear masks, in part because “a significant portion of the student population is not eligible for vaccination.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) takes it a step further, urging everyone, regardless of their vaccine status, to continue donning masks and maintaining social distancing. The WHO says the measures are necessary due to the highly-contagious delta variant spreading across the globe, as well as the fact that a large percentage of the world’s population is unvaccinated or has received less-effective vaccines.
So, who can educators trust: the CDC, AAP, or WHO?
In the absence of a unified message, administrators—lacking medical expertise—must piece together their own Covid policies, under the glare of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle looking to score political points in the mask debate.
Former President Donald Trump deserves much of the blame for transforming a health crisis into a hot-button issue. Trump spread—and is still spreading—false claims about the coronavirus, including Covid not being as bad as the flu, saying it would disappear quickly, and promoting unproven cures. A Cornell University study determined Trump was “likely the largest driver” of Covid misinformation.
However, the scientific establishment is also at fault for conflicting messages about Covid dating back to the beginning of the pandemic.
Then-surgeon general, Jerome Adams, even tweeted, “Seriously people—STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!” That tweet was later deleted.
The next month Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told a Senate subcommittee masks weren’t necessary because “right now there isn’t anything going around right now in the community, certainly not coronavirus, that is calling for the broad use of masks.”
In April 2020, the CDC changed its recommendation, encouraging all Americans to wear masks away from home. Two months later, the WHO followed suit. Both Dr. Fauci and Dr. Adams reversed their stances, as well.
It’s not unusual for health officials to change their minds. In the scientific world, it’s a sign of strength to modify one’s opinion based on the latest evidence. Ultimately, the CDC endorsed masks after discovering asymptomatic patients were spreading Covid.
But in popular culture flip-flopping and disagreements among experts tend to generate confusion and distrust, a perfect breeding ground for the proliferation of virus misinformation and conspiracy theories.
With coronavirus cases rising nationwide, communities are reinstating mask mandates. Los Angeles County and St. Louis County are now requiring masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status. This goes against the CDC’s recommendations but is in agreement with the WHO.
To make matters even more convoluted, last week, Dr. Fauci, the White House’s chief medical advisor, suggested vaccinated people might consider wearing a mask indoors if they “want to go the extra mile of safety,” an idea not deemed necessary by the CDC.
Until a consistent, public-health message is formulated, school boards across the country will continue grappling with conflicting guidance, increasing the likelihood that the decision of whether to require masks will be driven by local politics, rather than science, resulting in outcomes not always in the best interest of students.
Worse, such conflicting messages erode public confidence in science, making it that much more difficult to convince everyone to get vaccinated in order to finally put the pandemic behind us.