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Isolation rule changes are the latest case of the CDC's problems with messaging


The new CDC guidelines for COVID isolation and quarantine have garnered a lot of criticism. Yesterday, they were panned by the American Medical Association as confusing and counterproductive. They've also been fodder for social media wags, who started a CDC has announced meme and also for comedians. Here's Desi Lydic from "The Daily Show."


DESI LYDIC: If you test negative but you're an Aries or any other fire sign, test again. Your immune system is a free spirit, so the tests have trouble detecting COVID.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So clearly, the message got muddled. And that's just one example of the agency's communication problems. NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin is here to explain. Selena, so obviously a lot of jokes and criticism on this latest guidance. How did things get so off track?

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Well, first of all, this came out via press release. It was only about 500 words. And it was unclear about how long to stay home and when to test, how to test, if you need to test. There was no technical briefing, no studies to support the change with evidence. That didn't come out until a week later. And there was none of the usual heads up that this press release was coming to important partners, like state and local health associations. Dr. Tom Frieden directed the agency during the Obama administration.

TOM FRIEDEN: There's a right way to do public health messaging. It means getting clear, simple, technically sound and practical recommendations, and then holding a media briefing to explain the reasoning behind them. For whatever reason, that's not how CDC recommendations are being rolled out.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: He says the result is that there's been a lot of misunderstanding about the guidance and criticism of the agency, and that some of the criticism points to a pattern with CDC's communication.

MARTÍNEZ: You said pattern. Tell us more about that.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, you know, there have been some memorable missteps, like take off your mask if you're vaccinated last spring, which then had to be walked back soon after. But also, critics say CDC is just not doing enough communicating about its guidance and policies to be able to explain when people are confused or have questions.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky has done media interviews. And she often presents at White House COVID-19 response briefings. Why wouldn't that be enough?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, first of all, these are White House-led briefings. There hasn't been a CDC-led media briefing for two years. It's just not the same thing as subject matter experts, career scientists, sharing with the press and the public what they know. Dr. Walensky also is a political appointee who came from a big hospital system. Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is often also at these briefings, is famously a great communicator. But he is an immunologist, not a public health policy expert.

MARTÍNEZ: OK. So how should, then, the CDC be getting that message out there then?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, in the not-too-distant past - back in 2009...

MARTÍNEZ: (Laughter).

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: ...Career scientists at CDC were briefing the public daily during the H1N1 pandemic. Glen Nowak ran CDC communications at the time. He's now a professor at the University of Georgia.

GLEN NOWAK: We did a press conference every single day for eight weeks, including weekends. We did press conferences as long as we had something that was new, something that was different, there was a need to do it.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: CDC scientists would field detailed questions from health reporters about the data or the vaccine supply or the guidance. And Dr. Frieden, who directed the agency then, says he actually thinks some of the current criticism of CDC is unfair, that the virus is changing in a way that justifies the changing guidance, but that the agency needs to get back to being more transparent and more communicative.

FRIEDEN: The fact is there are dedicated scientists at CDC who are the worlds' experts in a lot of these issues. And they need to be speaking directly to the public along with Dr. Walensky.

MARTÍNEZ: Selena, what does the agency say?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, I asked CDC's press office if there might be CDC-led briefings in the future. I did not hear back by air time. And this isn't just about optics. People need to understand public health guidance to follow it. And unclear communication can be used to fuel disinformation that can undermine trust in CDC and public health. So the stakes are high.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. That's NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin. Thanks a lot.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Selena Simmons-Duffin reports on health policy for NPR.