CDC’s relaxed COVID rules: Reasonable or reckless?

·Senior Editor
·6-min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week released new pandemic guidelines that significantly relaxes some of its recommendations for preventing the spread of COVID-19.

Among the most significant changes are an end to the recommendation that anyone exposed to someone with COVID be isolated for several days and the abandonment of “test-to-stay” rules, which required students in a classroom with a confirmed case be tested regularly in order to stay in school. The new guidance also ends the agency’s emphasis on physical distancing as a mitigation strategy, a core element of the nation’s pandemic response for more than two years.

“This guidance acknowledges that the pandemic is not over, but also helps us move to a point where COVID-19 no longer severely disrupts our daily lives,” Dr. Greta Massetti, the CDC’s chief field epidemiologist wrote in a statement on Thursday.

In a news conference explaining the new rules, Massetti said the changes reflect the reality that “COVID-19 is here to stay,” but argued that widespread immunity from vaccines and previous infections means the country is in “a different place” than it was earlier in the pandemic.

There has been no change in the CDC’s stance on vaccines, which the agency continues to promote as the single most important way to prevent severe infections and deaths. Masks are also still viewed as a key mitigation strategy in certain circumstances. And the agency has maintained its guidance that people who test positive for COVID should isolate for several days.

Why there’s debate

Many health experts and political analysts have praised the CDC for adjusting the guidance in a way that, in their view, accurately reflects the current state of the pandemic. They argue that, though case numbers are still quite high, the virus doesn’t pose nearly as much danger to the public as it once did. There’s hope that these new rules are a major step toward finally ending the emergency phase of the pandemic and moving to a new normal in which COVID is still present, but doesn’t cause the kind of societywide disruptions that have occurred over the past two-and-a-half years.

The biggest beneficiaries, many argue, will be school-age children, who will be more likely to stay in the classroom under the new guidelines. “After two years of uncertainty and disruption, we need as normal a year as possible so we can focus like a laser on what kids need,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, wrote in a statement lauding the changes.

But others have accused the CDC of allowing political pressure, rather than public health, guide the decision to ease its COVID recommendations. They argue that, regardless of how tired the public is of the pandemic, the fact that hundreds of people are still dying every day means the emergency is far from over. The harshest critics say the agency is effectively giving up on the public response to COVID and leaving individuals to fend for themselves — an approach they say creates outsized danger for vulnerable people like the elderly and immunocompromised.

Perspectives

Supporters

The change in guidance reflects changes in the virus

“The CDC revised its guidance for responding to Covid-19, taking a much-belated step to officially recognize the enormous change in how the disease spreads and the tremendous reduction in how deadly it is to those who contract it.” — Alexandra Desanctis, National Review

These revisions should have been made a long time ago

“In an ideal view of how expertise informs society, C.D.C. guidelines would track the evolving nature of the pandemic closely and provide a road map back to normalcy. In reality, the C.D.C. has been consistently behind — behind evolving scientific knowledge, behind the curve of Covid’s evolution, behind how most Americans have already adapted.” — Ross Douthat, New York Times

Now is the right time to transition to a more sustainable response to COVID

“I’m glad the CDC is finally meeting the moment and recognizing our broad health needs beyond simply not getting COVID. For kids in particular, it’s time to more appropriately balance the harms of COVID with the harms of mitigation measures. COVID is here to stay. Living in a perpetual state of emergency isn’t sustainable; it’s also not necessary with widespread availability of vaccines and therapeutics.” — Lucy McBride, infectious disease expert, to Yahoo News

Federal authorities are finally coming to grips with the reality that the emergency is long over

“With the agency finally loosening restrictions that have been obsolete for more than a year now, state and local governments should drop their last restrictions and go back to normal.” — Zachary Faria, Washington Examiner

There’s no reason to be closing classrooms over individual cases anymore

“Though we’d have hoped for more, the new recommendations are more than mere technical window-dressing. On the contrary. They could fundamentally change the lives of school kids from coast to coast, getting public schools open again. Just as they are supposed to be. As they must be.” — Editorial, Mass Live

The new rules allow individuals to set their own level of risk management

“Instead of applying across-the-board mitigation measures for everyone in an effort to reduce infection, [the CDC] is acknowledging the continued prevalence of the coronavirus and encouraging people to choose the precautions right for them.” — Dr. Leana Wen, Washington Post

Critics

We’re still very much in the emergency phase of COVID

“More than 3,000 Americans died of Covid over the past week but this country continues to be in denial.” — MSNBC host Mehdi Hasan

The changes are informed by politics, not public health

“Could political leaders be thinking more about what would help them and their political party members get … re-elected than what would best protect the public in the longer run?” — Bruce Y. Lee, Forbes

Any public health plan that puts the onus on individuals is doomed to fail

“I do not think the CDC’s new guidance is appropriate for public health, given that it relies completely on individual actions and the honor system. The guidance does not allow for protection of those who are most vulnerable to severe Covid-19.” — Elizabeth Jacobs, epidemiologist, to Wall Street Journal

Instead of learning to live with COVID, we should be trying to crush it

“The CDC position that we need to ‘live with Covid,’ as espoused with its guidance, should be countered by exploiting the science and our clear capabilities of fully containing the virus, once and for all.” — Eric Topol, The Guardian

The new rules leave vulnerable people to fend for themselves

“This new guidance may be signaling a strategic shift in the nation’s prevention strategy, but is everyone equally ready for that shift? If you are under 60, healthy, vaxxed and boosted, the data suggest you are very unlikely to become severely ill or die from Covid. But what about all the people who don’t fit those criteria? What if you are among the more than half of all Americans with a chronic disease, or one of the 7-million-plus who are immunocompromised?” — Brian Castrucci, NBC News

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images, Getty images