Recommendations from the Biden administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention seem to change weekly regarding coronavirus precautions. Americans are justifiably confused and are at risk of tuning out. For a Democratic administration struggling to create the appearance of command authority during an ongoing national crisis, the mixed messaging feeds the Republican narrative that Democrats are incompetent.
Americans should, first of all, remember the pandemic response under the previous administration. President Donald Trump proposed on national television the consumption of cleaning fluid as a coronavirus remedy. He directly contradicted his own experts. He refused to wear a mask in public, becoming infected and requiring emergency treatment. But to Trump's credit, he spearheaded the crash development of vaccines that, today, are keeping people alive.
President Joe Biden in some senses had to build America's pandemic-response network from zero because of Trump's obstinacy and cultivation of a political environment that encouraged millions of Americans to reject masks and vaccines. Their refusal is the primary force behind new, record-high infection rates that are pushing health care resources to the breaking point. Such obstinacy also helps extend the life of the virus so it can continue mutating into more infectious variants such as the current omicron wave.
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.
The pre-omicron quarantine period for people exposed to the virus used to be 10 days. Now it's five days, according to CDC guidance, or not at all, unless the person shows symptoms. Asymptomatic people can still be contagious, so they should stay at home. Or maybe just wear a mask. But forget about cloth masks; make sure it's an N95. Should students return to remote learning or stay in classrooms? Who knows?
Nationally, courts have flip-flopped on whether employers must comply with Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules. The Supreme Court on Thursday blocked an administration rule requiring employees either to be vaccinated or submit to weekly testing and wear masks. Large companies that had just implemented the OSHA rules now could have to change course, adding to the confusion.
The CDC director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, says the virus's constantly changing nature creates a moving target. "You know, this is hard" to come up with a consistent, clear message, she told Fox News.
But the fundamentals haven't changed and bear repeating: The safest way to avoid infection is to avoid large groups and wear a properly fitting mask. Fully vaccinated and boosted people are still vulnerable to infection but tend to have milder symptoms, whereas unvaccinated people are the ones currently overwhelming hospitals.
Why should exasperated members of the public not start tuning out? Because they could be the next ones seeking emergency hospital treatment. Given current wait times, it's far smarter to be overly cautious than throw caution to the wind.