March 21, 2021

How Can We Restore Public Trust in the CDC?

trust

I think most of us can agree that the scientific community understands COVID-19 better today than they did when the pandemic first started. That being the case, it certainly makes sense that the sort of guidance issued from federal public health agencies has changed throughout the pandemic. As just one of many notable examples, they shifted from insisting that no masks were necessary to recommended double-masking. Many of us found this sort of thing to be both frustrating and anxiety-provoking, especially when we discovered that we had been intentionally lied to about some of it. Still, I think most of us understood that public health recommendations would likely change as more was learned about the virus.

The problem, even aside from the lying noted above, has been that the CDC's independence and integrity has been called into question. As tempting as it might be for some liberals to say that Trump's CDC might have been problematic but that Biden's CDC is not, I cannot agree with this assessment. It has looked like both CDCs are too easily influenced by political directives, suggesting that there is not nearly as much independence as there needs to be to maintain public trust.

I may be wrong here, but I have real trouble believing that it was mere coincidence that the CDC changed their guidance regarding social distancing for public schools shortly after President Biden made it clear that he wants more schools to reopen as quickly as possible. But here's the tricky thing: it may not even matter whether the CDC was actually influenced by politicians as long as it looked like they might have been. Fair or not, that is how public trust works. Something that looks like a conflict of interest or a lack of independence can be a real problem even if a genuine conflict of interest isn't present.

As temping as it may be to shame conservatives and anyone else who is reluctant to get one of the new vaccines, I am hesitant to do so. While I think they are making a mistake by not getting vaccinated given the seriousness of COVID-19, I do not have much trouble understanding why some might be skeptical of what they are hearing from the CDC. As far as I am concerned, the inconsistent messaging we have received from the CDC throughout the pandemic has been a mess. It has done little to make me trust them. As for the fact that they are now changing their recommendations to facilitate one of the administration's political goals, well...I am glad I am not a parent with children in public school.

It sounds like it is going to be important to get as many people as possible vaccinated, and that is going to mean that many minds will need to change. Efforts to restore public trust are likely to be helpful here. I'd like to see the top CDC officials who decided to lie to the public about masks early in the pandemic fired in a very public way. I'd also like to see some evidence of independence in the sense that public health recommendations are scientifically based on not politically influenced. If this is not how the agency has been operating, we need to be assured that responsible parties will be held accountable and this will be improved going forward.

The problem with trust is that it is difficult to earn, easy to lose, and damn near impossible to restore once it has been lost. I do believe that it is possible to restore trust. An important first step is recognizing that it needs to be restored. Sadly, I am not sure we have taken that step yet.