“Thanks to the CDC for making an already confusing issue even more confusing,” one virologist tweeted.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Monday removed recently added language from its website that said it was “possible” that the novel coronavirus often spreads via airborne transmission, sparking more fears that the Trump administration is co-opting the agency for political purposes.
The agency initially posted information on Friday stating that the virus could be transmitted by aerosol droplets released when a person infected with COVID-19 coughs, sneezes, sings, talks, or breathes.
“There is growing evidence that droplets and airborne particles can remain suspended in the air and be breathed in by others, and travel distances beyond 6 feet (for example, during choir practice, in restaurants, or in fitness classes),” the page said. “These particles can be inhaled into the nose, mouth, airways, and lungs and cause infection. This is thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”
On Monday, the agency reversed the guidance, removing references to airborne transmission as a major source of infections.
“A draft version of proposed changes to these recommendations was posted in error to the agency’s official website,” the page now reads. “CDC is currently updating its recommendations regarding airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19). Once this process has been completed, the update language will be posted.”
The reversal was met with criticism from public health experts, who have argued for months that evidence shows airborne transmission is a key factor in spreading the virus. They said the agency’s shifting guidance would only confuse people more.
“Thanks to the CDC for making an already confusing issue even more confusing,” Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist, said in a tweet.
Other healthcare experts, including Dr. Celine Gounder, an infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist, made clear they believe the reversal was the result of political pressure from the Trump administration.
While the debate rages on over exactly how much of a role aerosol transmission plays in driving the spread of COVID-19, a consensus emerged over the summer that it is a significant factor. In the face of mounting evidence, the World Health Organization updated its own guidance in July to acknowledge the role of aerosols in spreading COVID-19.
But the CDC and the Trump administration refused to publicly recognize the same reality, even as the president himself told journalist Bob Woodward in February that the virus was spread through the air. In public, Trump has long downplayed the dangers of the virus, which has now killed 200,000 Americans. The CDC, meanwhile, had until Friday resisted acknowledging the role of aerosols in transmission, and as of Monday, had once again embraced its old position.
The reversal marks just the latest example of the agency contradicting itself. The CDC previously updated its coronavirus testing guidelines in August, stating that asymptomatic people did not need to be tested. That change was reversed last week, after a month of public backlash and revelations that the recommendation was not written by CDC scientists and was instead forced onto the website by officials at the Department of Health and Human Services over the serious objections of the CDC scientists.
The agency also asked state and local health officials earlier this month to be ready to distribute a potential COVID-19 vaccine as soon as late October, a timeline that even Moncef Slaoui, who is leading the federal government’s Operation Warp Speed vaccine effort, said was “extremely unlikely.” That effort was also panned by public health experts, who expressed concerns that the federal government might try to rush out a vaccine in order to boost President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign.
The CDC also came under fire in a new report from the Government Accountability Office, which found that the agency’s guidance to schools was “inconsistent.”
“Although the decision to physically reopen schools is primarily a state and local issue, state and local school district officials look to the federal government for leadership and clear guidance including recommendations about how to do so safely. Unclear federal guidance and messaging risks contributing to conflict, confusion, and indecision for schools,” the report said.
The report recommends the CDC provides updated guidance to schools that is “cogent, clear, and internally consistent”—or, the exact opposite of its aerosol guidance.
The turmoil and accusations of politicization has eroded public trust in the CDC. A recent survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that trust in the agency had dropped by 16 percentage points since April, when KFF did a similar survey. Forty-two percent of adults said the agency was paying “too much attention” to politics when it comes to reviewing and approving treatments for coronavirus or issuing guidelines and recommendations.
In the long run, this mistrust in the CDC and FDA could have devastating consequences for COVID-19 vaccination rates. A new poll from the Pew Research Center found that only 51% of survey participants said they would definitely or probably get a COVID-19 vaccine if it were available today, down from 72% in May.
This reluctance to get a vaccine could make it more difficult for the US to reach herd immunity, which most experts say requires the nation to vaccinate about 70% of its population—or 200 million people. If the US fails to successfully vaccinate its population, there’s no telling how many more deaths the nation will endure from COVID-19.