Authoritative guidance on how the coronavirus spreads has developed throughout the pandemic: A focus on the dangers of infected surfaces, for example, eventually gave way to the importance of masks.
That shifting guidance is understandable — scientists have raced to understand an unprecedented outbreak — but the key is that when new information is available, it must be presented clearly to the public.
That’s what’s so concerning about this weekend’s website revision saga at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — the nation’s leading public health organization. The agency’s "How COVID-19 Spreads" page on Friday changed its guidance to say that "small particles, such as those in aerosols" were a vector for the dangerous virus.
This is crucial information because it has bearing on how we keep the coronavirus at bay. At least six feet of distancing and masks might be enough to help prevent transmission by heavier, quicker-to-fall droplets from coughing or sneezing. But aerosol particles are smaller and some scientists have pointed to their potential danger in poorly ventilated indoor spaces.
This is not unvetted, brand-new science: In July, the World Health Organization acknowledged the issue of airborne spread of the coronavirus, and its guidance now says that regarding outbreaks in closed, crowded, poorly ventilated settings, aerosol transmission "cannot be ruled out."
The CDC may have been moving in that direction with the Friday revision. But on Monday, the aerosol language was removed.
"A draft version of proposed changes to these recommendations was posted in error," its page said by Tuesday. "CDC is currently updating its recommendations regarding airborne transmission."
The public needs well-vetted information from the CDC. State and county health officials rely on it. So does the public. As the weather in New York gets cooler and schools reopen and people move indoors, we need to know more about the dangers of indoor spaces and what can be done to mitigate those dangers, from ventilation to distancing.
Unfortunately, this has not been the first unforced about-face in CDC guidance. Under pressure from White House advisers, the CDC in August shifted its testing guidance to say that potentially exposed individuals without COVID-19 symptoms didn’t necessarily need a test. The agency reversed course on that last week.
The politicization of federal health organizations became even clearer with reports of the inappropriate meddling by Michael Caputo, now on leave as top spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the CDC. Caputo, a political operative from upstate New York, promoted dangerous conspiracy theories on social media and just before his removal suggested that CDC scientists were working against President Donald Trump.
Trump has contradicted the statements of CDC head Robert Redfield, from the reality of when a vaccine might be ready to the efficacy of masks.
That’s dangerous. Our health experts need to be able to do their work, and they need to present that work in clear and unfiltered terms so we all know what needs to be done to be safe.
— The editorial board