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The CDC's new isolation guidelines are a communications disaster

The omicron variant's surge feels like a bad time to confuse people.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention introduced new guidelines that reduce the amount of time people who test positive for Covid-19 but have no symptoms should spend in isolation from 10 days to five. As a result, it feels like everyone in the country is mad at the CDC. I’m normally inclined to defend institutions, but I can’t blame the folks baffled by the CDC’s decision-making process.

Since the pandemic started, the non-front-line job I’ve envied least belongs to those communicating the CDC’s decisions. It’s a hard, thankless role — and one that they, somehow, have not gotten better at as the pandemic has dragged on.

The new guidance suggests that if you’re showing no symptoms after five days in isolation, you can go out in public, as long as you wear a mask for another five days. But there’s no requirement that people test themselves before they leave isolation.

Since the pandemic started, the non-front-line job I’ve envied least belongs to those communicating the CDC’s decisions.

In their attempts to defend the new guidelines, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC's director, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, actually helped undercut whatever support there was for those changes among people who take Covid seriously. Walensky told CNN on Wednesday that the change “really had a lot to do with what we thought people would be able to tolerate.” Fauci, meanwhile, said, “If you are asymptomatic and you are infected, we want to get people back to jobs — particularly those with essential jobs to keep our society running smoothly.”

On their face, both are reasonable statements. We’re already at a point where many Americans still refuse to take under advisement even the most basic recommendations, including vaccination and masking. And as Walensky told the "TODAY" show, most people already weren’t complying with the 10-day isolation period. There’s also the risk that with the omicron variant quickly spreading, a 10-day isolation period would force too many people to stay home and lead to the shutdown of vital services. "On balance, if you look at the safety of the public and the need to have society not disrupted, this was a good choice," Fauci told "NBC Nightly News."

But by incorporating societal responses and employer requirements into their arguments, Walensky and Fauci implied that the CDC’s decision wasn’t based purely in science. While the evidence shows that people are most contagious during the early days of their infection, health experts say there’s no new data that justifies changing the guidelines. Experts haves also expressed concerns that the new guidance doesn’t include a testing requirement and leaves it up to individuals to presume they’re not infectious.

That brings us to the biggest problem Walensky and her staff face trying to explain their thinking: The gig is one of inherent contradictions. People respond well to clear, concise instructions: easy-to-remember slogans, bullet-point checklists, things that would look good on a poster. But by its very nature, there is no real certainty in the middle of a pandemic. The government’s public health officials are constantly learning new things, dealing with new variants and revising previous recommendations.

This has meant any proclamation from authorities has been required to be issued with a pretty substantial set of “buts” and “ifs” and other hedges. But if there’s one thing Americans really seem to hate, it’s a caveat.

If there’s one thing Americans really seem to hate, it’s a caveat.

That struggle has been clear since the early days, when Fauci and others were advising against people purchasing N95 masks and other protective equipment in short supply at the time. The goal was to save that inventory for front-line medical workers, but it was used as ammo to discredit the later recommendation that all Americans wear masks indoors. The initial message was clear — but subsequently shifting from it led to greater mistrust.

The country’s health leaders promise that they incorporated a number of factors into their decision. I believe them on that front. Did they consider how those guidelines will be abused to make people who are sick with Covid report to work because they are unable to find a rapid test to prove that they have Covid? Yeah, I have doubts.

In the most recent polling available, from the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, a majority of Americans still trust the CDC. But when Gallup polled Americans in August on whether the CDC was “communicating a clear plan,” the results weren’t great: 41 percent disagreed with the premise, while only 32 percent agreed. That was equal to the previous low point in Gallup’s polling since July 2020.

I’d be interested in seeing Gallup’s results after the latest guidance shift. Because the feeling of confusion and betrayal from people who think the CDC is prioritizing businesses over saving lives is palpable. On social media, Americans are having fun with finishing the thought: “The CDC says…” General rule of thumb: If your policy is perplexing enough to inspire a meme format, you’ve made a mistake along the way.