Who’s to blame for the drop off in new vaccinations? Start with public health officials like the CDC.

Who’s to blame for the drop off in new vaccinations? Start with public health officials like the CDC.

Don’t throw those masks away just yet. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) relaxed mask-wearing guidance for those who have been fully vaccinated. But only outside. And only in settings that aren’t crowded.

However, the CDC could’ve issued much of this new guidance months ago. Epidemiologists have known since last summer that it’s nearly impossible to contract the virus outdoors, even for an unvaccinated person.

Waiting to ease mask restrictions is part and parcel of a doomsday mentality that’s permeated the government response to the pandemic. It’s also fueling vaccine hesitancy. When people hear from public health officials that getting vaccinated may not usher in a return to normalcy, may not prevent COVID-19, and could harm their health in other ways, they grow reluctant to get their shots.

That slows our march to herd immunity — and ensures the pandemic will be with us longer than necessary.

Unclear guidance

The COVID-19 vaccines are among the most effective ever invented. Real-world data have borne out what the clinical trials showed. Every vaccine approved for emergency use in the United States stops hospitalization or death from COVID-19 nearly 100% of the time.

Still, the number of people who say they won’t take the vaccine remains high. According to the latest CBS News/YouGov poll, 18% of Americans say they might get the vaccine, and 22% say they will not. While the share of “Maybes” has decreased four percentage points since March, the share of “Nos” has stayed constant.

Guidance from public health officials may contribute to this stickiness in public opinion. They’ve been encouraging people to get vaccinated — but cautioning that it shouldn’t change their behavior afterward.

Most people concluded months ago that going for a mask-less run or hanging out with a few friends in the backyard posed little to no risk. And after high-profile mass gatherings like the Black Lives Matter protests last summer turned out not to be super-spreader events, it seemed clear that masking up outdoors was probably overkill. Yet the CDC is only now relaxing its mask advice?

Then there’s the guidance for indoor masking. The CDC says even vaccinated people should still cover their faces. But there’s scant evidence to suggest that fully vaccinated individuals spread the virus inside.

A February study out of Israel found that vaccinated people had viral loads in the nose and throat 60% smaller than those who weren’t vaccinated. Since the virus mainly transmits through the nose and throat, the findings suggest that vaccines reduce transmission.

The CDC ran a similar study of 4,000 vaccinated healthcare workers and found that the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines prevented infection, including asymptomatic infection, 90% of the time.

Encouraging masks for reasons of social solidarity may be wise, but that’s not the CDC’s reason for asking vaccinated people to wear masks. The agency doesn’t really offer one.

The Food and Drug Administration has been similarly opaque with the public. The nation’s top drug regulator famously suspended administration of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine for 10 days while it investigated reports of rare blood clots. Of the 7.5 million people who have received the shot, seven women have reported the blood clot symptoms. That means 99.9999% of recipients of the vaccine didn’t see any severe side effects.

That pause ended with a warning label being placed on the vaccine. But the damage has been done. The number of first doses of vaccine administered daily plummeted 40% after the pause. An ABC News/Washington Post poll out this week found that 73% of unvaccinated Americans wouldn’t take the Johnson & Johnson shot. Just 46% of all Americans believe it is very or somewhat safe.

Government guidance that restricts safe behavior and sows doubt about vaccine safety — even unintentionally — will undermine the campaign to vaccinate the population. Public health officials are fond of saying they’re just following the science. They should level with the public and actually do so.

Sally C. Pipes is president, CEO, and the Thomas W. Smith fellow in healthcare policy at the Pacific Research Institute. Her latest book is False Premise, False Promise: The Disastrous Reality of Medicare for All (Encounter 2020). Follow her on Twitter @sallypipes.

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