- Three out of four doctors say they’ve lost trust in the CDC during the pandemic.
- When medical professionals don’t have faith in the US’ foremost public health institution, we’ve got a serious problem.
- The CDC could win back the public’s trust by trusting the public can handle the truth.
- And the agency could win back the trust of doctors by maintaining consistent messaging that doesn’t bend to political pressures or popular whims.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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When even doctors and nurses have lost faith in the CDC, you know there’s a problem with America’s foremost public health agency.
In a devastating indictment of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a recent WebMD/Medscape poll found 77% of doctors — and coincidentally, 77% of nurses — said their trust in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has declined during the pandemic. It’s tough to make the case that ordinary Americans should put their faith in the institution when these groups don’t.
To be sure, the CDC is composed of fallible human beings, almost all of whom are trying their best to provide accurate and necessary guidance.
And it should be plainly stated that during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic everyone was flying blind, even medical experts who sometimes accidentally broadcast confusing information or were later forced to correct previous statements as the facts on the ground changed.
The folks at the CDC obviously have their work cut out for them when it comes to winning back the public.
But for the good of public health, the CDC should also prioritize repairing its reputation among the medical professionals tasked with carrying out its vital guidelines.
The “trust the science” agency has spoiled trust in science
The CDC’s crisis of confidence is of its own making, as evidenced by a RAND Corporation poll released in April that showed a roughly 10% decline in trust among Americans.
And it all begins and ends with masks.
The agency regularly infantilized Americans “for our own good” throughout the pandemic with misleading, over-cautious guidance. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
After the criminally incompetent Trump administration proved so unprepared for a pandemic in early 2020, the CDC infamously misled the public by saying masks are ineffective at stopping the spread of COVID.
It was a ploy to buy enough time for the federal government to replenish the nation’s supply of personal protective equipment — the lack of which led to infuriating images of frontline health care workers wearing garbage bags and snorkel masks to keep from getting infected as they worked nonstop days and nights surrounded by gruesome illness and death.
But after the CDC whip-sawed between “Masks don’t work!” to “Wear masks pretty much everywhere, indefinitely!”, it opened the door to Trumpworld pablum that everything the CDC did was part of a globalist conspiracy to whittle away Americans’ freedoms.
That’s ridiculous, of course, and it was partly fueled by misinformation’s ever-increasing grip on American culture. But an institution whose guidance carries society-wide life-and-death consequences can maybe get away with the excuse that the public “couldn’t handle the truth” once, while still not completely torpedoing its reputation.
In a disastrous Senate hearing this May, CDC director Rochelle Walensky defended the agency’s recommendation that masks continue to be worn outdoors based on a meta-analysis that said “fewer than 10%” of COVID transmissions happen outdoors. (Epidemiologists say the real number is much closer to 0.1% than it is to 10%.)
Just days later, amid public outcry, the CDC abruptly changed course and said vaccinated people could unmask in most outdoor situations, but it continues to advise outdoor-masking for unvaccinated kids at summer camps — which is essentially all kids under 12, who aren’t yet eligible for jabs.
The guidance came in spite of publicly-available scientific studies showing kids are at far less risk for contracting and spreading COVID, at even less risk for getting very sick from the virus, and almost certainly will not contract the virus outdoors.
This kind of all-over-the-place messaging creates chaos and breeds mistrust. But it also infuriates medical professionals.
Some doctors felt the CDC’s “no mask necessary for the vaccinated” advisory was too easily interpreted by vague wording as to mean “no masks at all.” Others felt the CDC should have been specific about the risks still posed to communities with lower-than-average vaccination rates.
“They flip flop daily on masks and which vaccine is safe,” one doctor who took the WebMd/Medscape poll said of the CDC. “Sadly, I no longer feel I can trust them at all.”
If the doctors don’t trust the CDC, asking the public to put its faith in the agency is a tough sell.
No one wants to live a zero-risk life
At its best, the CDC provides up-to-date scientific information and sober-minded advice on how the public should interpret the facts. At its worst, the CDC has arrogantly patronized the public, to the detriment of its own reputation.
Just over half of Americans (52%) say they have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of faith in the CDC, according to a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation/Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health poll conducted in February and March.
And, depressingly, the CDC’s number is on the high side when it comes to public trust in health institutions.
That same poll found that just 37% have faith in the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), while the Department for Health and Human Services (HHS) clocks in at 33% on the “trust” scale.
There is no shortage of bad actors in this country propagating medical misinformation that could lead to widespread death and misery. One need only look at the stubbornly stable percentage of Americans who say they will not receive a COVID vaccine, no matter what, to determine that we have a public health crisis which will outlast the pandemic.
But with both the nation’s medical professionals and the public at large losing faith in the “trust the science” institution, the CDC ought to learn from its mistakes.
A good start would be for the agency to provide guidance that articulates the risks without exaggerating them, and exhibit enough humility to recognize that every aspect of society can’t shut down indefinitely.
The CDC could win back the public’s trust by trusting the public can handle the truth. And the agency could win back the trust of doctors by maintaining consistent messaging that doesn’t bend to political pressures or popular whims.
People need to be able to trust the institutions charged with keeping them safe, but they also need hope.
And after more than a year where medical professions have been rightfully lauded as superhuman pillars of the community, they deserve an institution that doesn’t undermine their heroic efforts.