As the delta variant takes rising toll, NC Senate leader undercuts trust in public health advice

State Senate leader Phil Berger knows better than to dismiss public health officials’ advice about curbing the spread of the dangerous delta variant, but the Rockingham County Republican can’t resist appealing to the irrationally mistrustful element of his party.

That weakness was evident in the fundraising email he sent Wednesday under the reckless header: “Guidance to ignore.” The guidance Berger dismissed was the CDC’s recommendation that all people – vaccinated and unvaccinated – resume wearing masks in indoor public settings in areas with substantial and high transmission of the coronavirus.

That announcement reversed an earlier CDC statement that fully vaccinated people could feel free to go without masks. But the switch didn’t make it, as Berger contends, fickle advice, or an instance of, as his email put it, “Left-wing bureaucrats playing political games and trying to control American lives.”

No, it’s Berger who’s playing political games. He’s looking to tap conservatives’ resistance to public health guidance from the Biden administration. It’s telling that he made his comments in a fundraising letter rather than in his official capacity. This was about tossing red meat to the base in return for dollars rather than doing his job, which is looking out for the welfare of all North Carolinians.

But Berger’s response went beyond politics. He was countering a message from the CDC, not the DNC. When elected officials trash the credibility of public health experts, they attack a crucial part of the nation’s effort to stop a pandemic that has taken more than 600,000 American lives.

Variant’s rising risk

The Senate leader’s scoffing email was sent a day before The Washington Post reported on an internal CDC document that says that the delta variant of the coronavirus can cause more severe illness, is more transmissible than the common cold and that the small percentage of vaccinated people who get infected can spread the illness as readily as the unvaccinated.

The risk of infection from the delta variant is clear in North Carolina, where daily new cases have climbed above 3,000 and more than 1,100 people are hospitalized, a quarter of them in intensive care. Only 57 percent of North Carolinians older than 12 are fully vaccinated and in some rural counties the rate is considerably lower.

To their credit, Berger and his fellow Republican leader, House Speaker Tim Moore, have made public service announcements urging North Carolinians to get vaccinated. Their endorsements may have saved lives. But Berger and other Republican leaders are also putting lives at risk by fueling skepticism about the motives of public health officials.

Cynical step

If Republican leaders don’t think masks are effective, they’re free to say that, though they should still urge compliance with mask requirements in public and private places. If they think it’s a violation of individual freedoms to require vaccinations, they can argue that in court. But taking the additional step of undermining nonpartisan public health experts is cynical and dangerous.

Berger’s email said the CDC’s advice to resume wearing masks is akin to its warning not to eat raw cookie dough because of the risk of getting salmonella from the dough’s raw eggs or E. coli from its raw flour. The email said, “Of course, the CDC also says you shouldn’t eat raw cookie dough, but we ignore that advice.”

The CDC’s advice on masks is sensible, science-based and evolving as more is learned about the behavior of the delta variant. Public health officials have and are giving the best advice they can as fast as they can.

Berger knows that, but when it comes to whipping up campaign contributions, he prefers to know nothing. In this case, he’s the one who should be ignored.