The C.D.C. Continues to Lead From Behind
By Ross Douthat
While we wait to learn more about how Donald Trump was using blueprints for the doomsday machine from “Dr. Strangelove” to impress his guests at Mar-a-Lago, let’s check in on America’s public health authorities. They were set free, 19 months ago,froms ago,from Trump’s science-denying reign of error; presumably since then the rule of reason and competence has been restored.
Sorry, I’m indulging in a little sarcasm. America’s response to Covid-19 went badly not just for Trump-related reasons, but because of problems inherent to our public health edifice, from bureaucratic sclerosis to the ideological capture of putatively neutral institutions. All those problems have extended themselves across the Biden presidency, so that its Trust-the-Science restoration has only deepened a crisis of authority.
I want to offer two examples. The first one is, at this point, relatively banal: the absurdity of the C.D.C.’s at-long-last updated Covid-19 guidelines.
In an ideal view of how expertise informs society, C.D.C. guidelines would track the evolving nature of the pandemic closely and provide a road map back to normalcy.
In reality, the C.D.C. has been consistently behind — behind evolving scientific knowledge, behind the curve of Covid’s evolution, behind how most Americans have already adapted. As my colleague Emily Anthes put it, gently, the new guidelines “effectively acknowledge the way many Americans have been navigating the pandemic for some time.”
Except, of course, in those institutions that still dutifully try to respect public health authority — like, say, the public schools that have been stuck trying to implement early-pandemic recommendations like the “six-feet rule,” or the “three feet in masks in classrooms and six feet everywhere else” alternative, which the new guidelines finally jettisoned. The arbitrariness of those distances was widely understood even before the contagiousness of the Delta variant made the rules still more absurd. Yet it’s taken a year, at least, for official science to finally catch up with the real thing.
That lag is, at this point, more familiar than maddening. But it’s genuinely infuriating to see Covidian patterns replaying with a completely different disease — the broadly non-fatal but still-pretty-terrible monkeypox epidemic, which the Biden administration just officially declared a public health emergency.
If Covid-19 probably would have overwhelmed even the most effective public-health bureaucracy, monkeypox — which as of now is mostly spread through close human contact, especially sexual contact, and for which we already have a vaccine — offered a chance to replay the Covid outbreak at a milder degree of difficulty. Yet the same kinds of bureaucratic failure were repeated — too little testing early on, too little interagency coordination, too little preparation for whatshouldfor whatshould have been predictable challenges.