WASHINGTON — “I’m sorry to be so frustrated,” Sen. Bill Cassidy told the nation’s top public health experts, who had come to Capitol Hill to discuss the coronavirus pandemic. A practicing physician, Cassidy, R-La., was one of several Republicans who used a contentious Tuesday hearing of the Senate Health Committee to argue that the nation was moving too cautiously to reopen, in good part because caution continued to be the message from the Biden administration.
To illustrate his point, Cassidy asked one of the witnesses, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, if people “can go back to work, if they’ve been vaccinated, and not wear a mask — assuming they’re not immunocompromised?”
Walensky did not answer the question, noting that the majority of Americans remain unvaccinated. “We are working to review our guidance, and to update our guidance,” she said. The CDC has not issued any new guidance on indoor mask wearing, or mask wearing in the workplace. That would mean, as Cassidy plainly understood, that his question, for now, could only be answered in the negative. If you’re back in your cubicle, the mask stays on.
“There’s consequence to this kind of delay” in updating public health guidance, Cassidy told Walensky. “The American people are incredibly frustrated.” He charged that much of what the CDC advised was “patently not true,” citing the recently changed guidance on outdoor mask wearing. He urged updates that better reflect the nature of viral transmission, as well as the exceptional effectiveness of the coronavirus vaccines in stopping almost all spread.
Cassidy noted that during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, “the recommendations were kind of calibrated to real life,” seeking to mitigate risk instead of trying to eradicate it altogether. As other conservatives have in recent days, Cassidy wondered why mask wearing continued to persist in places like the airy Senate chamber where the hearing was being held, since most everyone present was likely vaccinated. Or outdoors, where the risks of transmission are minimal.
“The American people just lost patience with us — with you guys,” a plainly dismayed Cassidy concluded. “I just ask you to be kind of aware of their frustration.”
Another witness at the hearing was Dr. Anthony Fauci, a top medical adviser to President Biden. He fielded questions about the origins of the coronavirus and had yet another testy exchange with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who has clashed with Fauci on previous occasions.
It was the CDC, however, that came in for the most sustained criticism from Republicans, who were generally more interested in the pandemic’s conclusion than its origin. The CDC was not doing enough, they said, to signal to Americans that that conclusion was nearly at hand. (The CDC did not return a Yahoo News request to respond at more length to Republicans’ assertions.)
“I used to have the utmost respect for the guidance from the CDC,” Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, told Walensky. “I always considered the CDC to be the gold standard. I don’t anymore.” Collins added that “conflicting, confusing guidance” has “undermined public confidence.” Specifically, she cited recent reports that the CDC was influenced by teachers’ unions in its guidance on school reopenings.
Collins also criticized the CDC for not conceding that outdoor transmission of the coronavirus is unlikely to nearly the point of impossibility. The lack of such a concession has resulted in a CDC guidance for summer camps that advises children to wear masks in most situations. The summer camp guidance has been the source of significant criticism, and was cited by Collins as what she described as one of the agency’s several recent missteps.
“Why does this matter? It matters because it undermines public confidence in your recommendations — in the recommendations that do make sense,” Collins told Walensky, “in the recommendations that Americans should be following.”
During the Trump administration, Democrats criticized the CDC and other public health agencies for not communicating frequently enough with the public. Now Republicans are criticizing those same agencies for communicating what they say is incorrect information. Some epidemiologists and public health experts agree that the CDC’s shifting positions on mask wearing, travel and social gatherings are confusing and do not clearly enough spell out the benefits of a post-vaccine life.
Frustration and uncertainty seem to mark this stage of the pandemic. Those sentiments have been in place more or less since the coronavirus arrived in the United States in early 2020. The difference now is that with the virus in apparent abeyance, at least some of that frustration has targeted a reluctance by some to fully move beyond restrictive public health measures.
Last week saw the publication of a widely shared Atlantic article, “The Liberals Who Can’t Quit Lockdown,” which Cassidy referred to in his exchange with Walensky. There have also been articles in the Washington Post and other publications about vaccinated people who persist in wearing a mask. Biden has been criticized for continuing to wear a mask outdoors when he could instead, some experts argue, advertise the promise of post-vaccine life.
The fundamental disagreement seems to be about who is holding up progress on the pandemic. Democrats have pointed to vaccine hesitancy among conservatives, including white evangelicals; Republicans say that the fault is with overly cautious people who continue to wear masks and take other precautions even after full vaccination. Doing so, they hold, suggests that vaccination is not the ticket out of pandemic life it had been billed as.
“It’s time for us to start setting the stage and paint the picture for what the fall looks like. That people can go on vacation this year and they can eat in a restaurant — in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, preferably,” said Sen. Richard Burr, who represents that state and is the committee’s top GOP member. He argued that telling the public that resumption of normal activities is safe can act as a strong enticement to vaccination.
Nor are these issues merely a matter of the culture wars. Offices remain closed, and the pace of hiring slowed sharply last month, after a winter and early spring of strong gains. While the reasons for that slowdown are complex, some believe that as long as the country remains in a state of partial lockdown, neither the economy nor civil society can return to normal.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., sought to defend Walensky and other health officials in the Biden administration, framing their approach as a reaction to the previous presidential administration.
President Trump “literally made things up about this virus,” Murphy charged, and “simplified the story over and over and over again,” notoriously claiming that the virus would disappear. Given how damaging that proved to be, Murphy said he was glad to have public health officials who “may occasionally err on the side of caution.”
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