The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is working on its messaging. And its director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, recently conceded that the CDC’s public statements around COVID-19 could be clearer.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Walensky said “we needed to be very clear” on issues such as testing. (A single FDA-approved rapid test can’t determine when to end isolation, she explained. A positive test result means you should stay home. But one negative test result doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not contagious.)
“I think what I have not conveyed is the uncertainty in a lot of these situations,” Walensky said.
CDC Director Has Faced Criticism from Public Health Experts
In the wake of criticism from public health experts that CDC guidance on mask-wearing, isolation requirements, and other topics has been confusing, Walensky is doubling her efforts to communicate more clearly. She’s taking coaching from a media consultant. And she has committed to holding more press briefings this year.
Public health experts believe that independent CDC briefings would serve to amplify the CDC’s scientific expertise. Holding them separately from the White House COVID-19 Response Team briefings would also give the impression that the CDC is free from political influence, they say.
The public health experts have some research to back up their beliefs. In a new study, scientists at the University of Colorado-Boulder found that politicians tend to polarize COVID-19 policy reactions, whereas trusted experts can unify support behind a given policy.
“When it comes to COVID-19… people are much more swayed by who the policy represents than what the policy actually is,” senior study author Leaf Van Boven said in a statement. “It also shows that people trust and like experts more than politicians—even those from their own party.”
“These findings underscore how important it is to have communications come from scientific sources that are not seen as political and to keep prominent politicians out of the spotlight of crisis communication,” co-first author Alexandra Flores added.
COVID Isolation Guidance Is an Example of Messaging Issues
As Axios points out, one example of a policy the CDC could have explained more clearly is its decision to shorten its isolation guidance from 10 days to five.
The CDC changed its recommendation in the wake of the Omicron variant. Its guidance switched to isolation for five days after testing positive. The agency did not initially recommend that ending isolation hinges on a negative COVID test.
Public health experts criticized that decision. They said ending isolation after five days without negative tests could put contagious COVID-19 carriers in a position to spread the virus further. The CDC then tacked on some testing recommendations.
As Walensky told the Journal, one can best use rapid tests in succession over the course of several days. That should tell you if the virus really has passed. One negative test in and of itself may not mean that contagion is over.