How the CDC can clean up its messaging mess

·Senior Editor
·5 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s policies and messaging have sparked intense debate throughout the pandemic, but the agency faced particularly fierce blowback for its recent announcement that it was shortening its recommended COVID-19 isolation period.

The CDC announced last month that it was reducing that recommended isolation period from 10 to five days without advising COVID patients to test themselves before returning to daily life. While there was debate about the wisdom of the policy change from a public health standpoint, the announcement was also widely criticized for its lack of clarity.

The president of the American Medical Association said the new guidance was confusing and risked “further spread of the virus.” Republican Sen. Richard Burr told Biden administration officials last week that their communication efforts have been “a mess and have only made things worse.”

The CDC has been the target of similar critiques since early in the pandemic, when it spent weeks urging Americans not to wear masks — before abruptly changing its guidance. The agency has also been accused of mixed messaging and haphazard policy shifts on booster shots, mask rules for the vaccinated, school closures and, most recently, whether cloth masks are effective at stemming the spread of the Omicron variant.

Why there’s debate

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky recently conceded that the agency could do more to improve its communication with the public “This is hard, and I am committed to continue to improve,” she said during a news briefing earlier this month.

Health experts and communications specialists have offered a variety of strategies the CDC can use to improve its messaging and regain public trust. The first step, many say, is for the agency to treat communication as seriously as it does scientific research, since even the best policies will be undermined if the public doesn’t understand them.

Several former health officials have called for the CDC to be more open and accessible by holding more press briefings to discuss the scientific rationale behind its decisions. “There are dedicated scientists at CDC who are the world’s experts in a lot of these issues, and they need to be speaking directly to the public,” former CDC director Tom Freiden told NPR.

A number of pundits have also urged the agency to show more humility when it issues new guidance. Key steps, they say, are for officials to be open about what they don’t know, acknowledge their past mistakes and avoid overly complicated rules that they may not be able to communicate clearly.

What’s next

Walensky, who has reportedly been working with a media consultant to improve her messaging skills, recently said that she intends to increase the frequency of CDC press briefings as part of an effort to give the agency more opportunities to clarify its policies.


The CDC should be more open about the data driving its decisions

“I would love to hear more from them just about — what is the science that they’re doing? How do they go about it? What is their process? … I think there is something to be said for also just putting a human face on some of this.” —Celine Gounder, infectious disease specialist, to NPR

Communication must be treated with the same level of seriousness as science

“Medical, government and public health officials must put as much thought, money and expertise into communicating their messages as they do into formulating them. Not being clear, getting it wrong or not reaching the audience at all can be a matter of life and death for members of that intended audience. There is no excuse for that kind of failure.” — David Zurawik, Baltimore Sun

Political considerations will always lead to muddied messaging

“The Biden team doesn’t make false claims as often or as spectacularly as Trump did. That’s surely an improvement. What’s unchanged from Trump to Biden: The briefings seem dictated more by the White House political agenda than by new data.” — Peter Sandman, crisis communications expert, to CNN

Messaging must be kept as simple as possible

“There is no reason the COVID guidance from the CDC should sound like stereo instructions written in Sanskrit. Drop the dead languages and just explain to people in plain English what they should be doing to … keep themselves and their families safe.” — Drew Sheneman,

Constantly changing guidance makes it difficult for the public to keep up

“To convince the public that the experts know what they’re talking about, and their advice should be followed, the administration’s message must be delivered with greater clarity and consistency.” — Editorial, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

More attention must be paid to how new guidance will be received by the public

“One of the core tenets of public health is that you have to meet people where they are. If you are seen as being in a totally different place than people’s realities, then they’re not going to listen.” — Dr. Leana S. Wen, health policy expert, to Axios

Honesty about the uncertainty of the pandemic will help build trust

“The government can help us pull out of this fog, but it should always be based on being honest with the public. We aren’t expecting officials to have crystal balls about everything, but we want them to empower and inform us while preparing for eventualities — good or bad.” — Zeynep Tufekci, New York Times

The problem is the CDC’s bad decision-making, not its messaging

“America’s public health institutions have failed to communicate effectively with the U.S. public throughout the pandemic for two reasons: either they have been left trying to defend poor policies, or the messaging has taken the place of creating any kind of coherent policy at all.” — Dylan Scott, Vox

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Photo Credit: AP

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