Most of us tend to trust a centralized, official agency regardless of its performance. It’s much easier to look to the official, well-known source rather than to check multiple independent sources. Are you wondering when you can reasonably stop wearing a mask at work? In public places inside or out? Are you wondering whether your children should be back in school? Whether you can safely travel, especially after being vaccinated? If you are looking to the CDC for advice be aware that they have made an enormous mess. They have often failed to “follow the science”. They are a bureaucratic and politicized organization. To think of them as providing an objective, apolitical, reliable opinion is naïve. Look at the CDC’s advice, of course, but then question it and look elsewhere.
Too many people hear the phrase “follow the science” and make two critical mistakes. The first is believing that there is a body of firm conclusions that constitute “the science” and all you have to do is accept them. Such an approach effectively turns science into religion, at least from the point of view of the believer. In a few physical sciences, there may be something very close to a core of firm conclusions – although even long-held laws in physics, chemistry, and cosmology can be and have been overturned – but the core of most sciences is much less firm. In the fields of nutrition, climate, and economic forecasting – to name just three – even many core principles and assumptions are highly contested and often on the brink of being falsified. It is fundamentally an error to see “science” as a thing. Science is a process of conjectures and refutations.
The second critical mistake is to equate “the science” with official government agencies, such as the CDC, FDA, and all the other three- and four-letter agencies. Science is a highly distributed process. Today, a disturbing amount of its funding and publication has been centralized and brought under the control of government agencies and self-appointed gatekeepers. The CDC is a disturbing case in point.
The CDC has been inexcusably wrong on too many major issues. They have been wrong on testing, wrong on masks, wrong on schools, wrong on travel, the effect of COVID on life expectancy, and now they are wrong on the effects of mask mandates and on-site dining.
Testing: The CDC is directly responsible in large part for the failure in the USA to get up to speed on testing in the crucial early days, when test-and-trace might still have worked. When the coronavirus was spreading early on the in the USA, the CDC told state and local officials that its “testing capacity is more than adequate to meet current testing demands,” according to a Feb. 26 agency email seen by The Wall Street Journal. In the first week of February 2020, the CDC sent 160,000 tests to labs around the country.
The agency botched that test kit, developed in one of their labs, leading to the retraction of many tests. After the tests were withdrawn still no approval was being given for private labs to produce tests. Private labs were eager to fill the gap but were barred. State officials and medical providers pled with the agency to open up testing, but the CDC turned away. Nor did health officials coordinate with private companies to ensure the availability of test-kit supplies. These delays at a critical early stage seriously damaged the country’s ability to contain the spread of the virus. The botched tests made it impossible to accurately assess how far and how fast the disease was spreading.
Among those coercively prevented from improving early testing was infectious disease expert, Dr. Helen Y. Chu. (Her story is told in a March 10 New York Times article.) Her requests for permission to test nasal swabs from people experiencing symptoms were turned down by the CDC for weeks. The CDC told her that she needed approval from the FDA, but they would not give it. Finally, Dr. Chu did the tests without permission. She found a positive test for a teenager from Seattle who had not recently traveled – a discovery she would have made weeks earlier if not suppressed by the bureaucracy. They did not admit to their error or give her credit. Dr. Scott Lindquist, Washington state’s epidemiologist for communicable diseases, says, “What they [the CDC and the FDA] said on that phone call very clearly was cease and desist to Helen Chu. Stop testing.”
The core problem here is coercive power and monopolization. No one could know precisely how the virus would spread. People other than the CDC should have been allowed to do what they thought best based on their distinctive view of the situation. This is a classic example of the value of economic freedom though what Friedrich Hayek, co-winner of the 1974 Nobel Prize in economics, understood as its allowing people to act on dispersed information, or what Hayek called knowledge of “particular circumstances of time and place.” The CDC ignored pleas from state officials and medical providers to broaden testing, and failed to work with outside companies to help the availability of test-kit supplies. (For more on this, see David Henderson’s “Capitalism is Still Working, Thank Goodness”)
The CDC hasn’t always acted so disastrously and arrogantly. Just a decade ago, in the H1N1 flu epidemic, the CDC worked with private labs and medical facilities to get tests into people’s hands. Even former director of the CDC (2009 to 2017) Tom Frieden said “This was kind of a perfect storm of three separate failures”, noting the botched test, overstrict FDA rules and sidelined private labs. Lacking reliable early testing, the opportunity to map early outbreaks and impose effective quarantines was blown. The World Health Organization (WHO) had sent out hundreds of thousands of testing kits to numerous countries and, on January 17, 2020 published a protocol of German origin that gave instructions that would help laboratories develop the tests. The same day, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the director of the U.S. National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, stated that the CDC would produce its own version. (Learn more from “The Monumental Failure of the CDC”:
Masks: The CDC (and Anthony Fauci) did not provide a consistent or evidence-based recommendation on masks. For several weeks, the CDC assured Americans that wearing a face mask in public was not necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19. They eventually changed their messaging but then played a major role in creating shortages of face masks, along with other federal agencies that prevented the importation of KN-95 masks. (The feds finally backed off on April 3, 2020.) Back-and-forth messaging first said that only health care workers and people who were sick needed to wear masks and then recommended that everyone wear face coverings when they’re out in public. The CDC utterly failed to provide clear and consistent communication.
Along with the FDA, it was the CDC that played a major role in creating a face mask shortage. Hospitals are not allowed to purchase masks from any suppliers they think suitable. They may only buy from suppliers certified by both the CDC and the FDA. As demand for masks in America grew, supply was constrained by the slow certification process. The CDC’s own data shows that it takes an average of 95 days to approve new certifications for face mask suppliers. Numerous foreign companies that could have supplied us with masks were not allowed to do so. Even certified suppliers had to jump through bureaucratic hoops in our highly-interventionist economy before they could fill orders. (For more information, see “America Could Import Countless More Face Masks if Federal Regulators Would Get Out of the Way”
In addition, the CDC’s messaging about masks has been inconsistent and even dishonest. As a result, many people have understandably lost trust in their guidance. For more, see this article from The Verge.
Before COVID, there was never a demand that Americans be forced to wear masks outside of specific medical settings. Growing evidence, piled on top of pre-COVID evidence, suggests that they may be essentially useless (given the kinds worn and how they are worn) and may make things worse both in their direct effects and by lulling people into thinking that other measures no longer matter. Whatever your evaluation of the conflicting evidence, each individual should be free to decide whether or not to wear one, so long as they abide by the rules of each house and business they visit. Although the agency’s guidance is officially nonbinding, it has more power than many formal regulations while lacking transparency and public scrutiny.
Schools: School closures were enforced for months despite the evidence and despite the tremendous downsides to forcing young children to stay home for a year. Some of the blame for this can certainly be placed on teachers’ unions. The unions have talked about “the science” when it suited them but ignored it when it became entirely clear that children were at very low risk of contracting or passing on the virus. Rather, they demanded that teachers stay home but continue to get paid.
School closures have especially harmed those from poor backgrounds, often living in dense conditions in bad neighborhoods, and autistic children and others with special needs. Instead of the excessive CDC guidelines, schools could have followed the Israel approach of regular testing of teachers and students and self-isolation when infection is found. Despite the data being clear since mid-2020, the CDC only changed its guidance for schools in January 2021. Derek Thompson’s article in The Atlantic makes us ask why the media, government leaders and bureaucrats, and medical experts all act to damage our children with unsupported school closures. See more here.
Travel: The CDC and President Biden acknowledge that it’s safe for fully vaccinated people to travel. Even so, they should not! They are over-cautious in a way that defies common sense. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky wailed “We’re all doomed because I feel it!” on one day after proclaiming the amazing power of COVID vaccines. The next, she undermines her previous statements by insisting that the fully vaccinated should continue to wear masks, socially distance, and avoid travel if they can. This confusing behavior can be understood if you understand that the CDC is a devotee of the precautionary principle, and doesn’t want people to do anything that carries the tiniest risk of harm. Apparently, avoiding tiny risks of harm is more important than anything else in life.
For more, see Robby Soave’s “The CDC Says Vaccinated People Can Safely Travel, But Please Don't” and “Despite what the CDC says, domestic travel is safe for fully vaccinated people, even Biden is doing it” and “Stop telling people not to travel. Health officials should be teaching us how to do it safely” and “Even more evidence shows vaccinated people are unlikely to transmit the coronavirus or get asymptomatic infections”.
The six-foot mandate: How many Americans are aware that the six-feet distancing guideline is based on extremely little evidence? And that many countries in Europe and elsewhere have different guidelines? The United States has some of the strictest social distancing measures in the world. Europeans in many countries only have to stand 1 meter (about 3 feet) apart. Do they know more than us? Or are both prescriptive orders set arbitrarily? China, France, Denmark, and Hong Kong choose one meter. South Korea went for 1.4 meters; Germany, Italy, and Australia chose 1.5 meters. We still don’t know how the CDC arrived at 6 feet as the magic number. More: “The 6-Foot Mandate Was Bad Science” and “Where’s the Science Behind CDC’s 6-Foot Social-Distance Decree?”
The WSJ article makes the point that the complaint is not that experts were wrong in the absence of good information. “The question is whether there is an effective process for establishing these measures and re-evaluating them as new information emerges. Science isn’t a set of unchanging truths handed down by a government agency.” Compounding the problem, the CDC “the CDC isn’t always clear on when the science is unsettled. This makes it harder for the American public to identify which recommendations are more open to discretion. The agency also doesn’t always identify the underlying science of its recommendations.”
The extension of the unjust eviction ban: It’s been announced that the CDC will be extending its eviction moratorium through the end of June. While delinquent renters may welcome this, landlords will be rightly unhappy that they are banned from taking back their property from nonpaying tenants. Previously good tenants who have fallen behind on payments aren’t at much risk. With so many people unemployed, it’s difficult for landlords to find new, reliable tenants. Rental listing website Zillow found, in states where data are available, that actual evictions have come in far below predicted evictions. Claims about ridiculously large numbers of likely evictions are unsupported and use crazy assumptions. For more, see “CDC Keeps Extending Its Illegal Eviction Ban”.
CDC misleadingly says COVID caused a reduction of one year in US life expectancy: A CDC spokesman has claimed that Covid has resulted in U.S. life expectancy falling by a year. (This was Elizabeth Arias. The real number is about 5 days or 0.013 years. How could the CDC be so badly wrong? How could it promote that false information to an already-traumatized public?
In one sense, that estimate follows standard guidelines for calculating changes in life expectancy. When a change is expected to affect life expectancy each year in the future to about the same extent as in the latest year, the process produces reasonable results. The CDC calculated what the effect on life expectancy would be if mortality rates stayed at their 2020 level. In other words, they figured out how much Covid would reduce life expectancy if the pandemic were repeated every year forever.
What the CDC should have assumed is that Covid-19 will increase mortality for only a brief period relative to the span of a normal life. The standard method of calculating life expectancy is extremely sensitive to passing events such as pandemics and wars. The CDC’s statement is concerning because almost everyone will take it to mean that Covid has shortened the life of every person by a year on average. For those in the 20-49 age group, the decline in life expectancy is less than one day. Even for seniors, the days lost comes to 87 days of discounted quality-adjusted life expectancy.
Quick math: Counting the 362,000 deaths in 2020, and accepting the (possibly excessive) estimate of 12 years of life lost on average, you get 4,344,000 life years lost. Divide by population = 0.013 or 4.75 days. Counting all Covid deaths to date: 570,294 x 12 = 6,843,528 = 0.02 or 7.5 days. For more, see Peter B. Bach, “CDC estimated a one-year decline in life expectancy in 2020. Not so — try five days” <https://www.statnews.com/2021/02/25/cdc-one-year-decline-life-expectancy-really-five-days/>
Excessively precautionary: Behind many of the CDC’s mistakes is its implicit attachment to the precautionary principle. (You can find plenty of thoughts about that principle elsewhere on my blog.) As Robby Soave from Reason notes, “It’s important to keep in mind that the CDC has always urged people to follow impractically cautious health guidelines. For instance, the CDC currently recommends that men consume no more than two alcoholic drinks and that women consume no more than one drink, each day. The agency’s clear preference is for people not to consume alcohol at all.”
The CDC has gone beyond excessive caution to bad policies and embarrassing public doomsaying. Director Rochelle Walensky warned of “impending doom” if states reopen too quickly. As POLITICO put it, a “visibly shaken” Walensky stood in front of the cameras and said, “Right now, I'm scared” and implied that her feelings were a sound basis for us all to be deeply fearful. Of course, fear is an effective tool of control.
The CDC has acted much as one would expect a centralized government agency to act. This is not the fault of the people working there. It’s the result of the agency’s structure and incentives. Unfortunately, most of the American public persists in the foolish belief that the CDC is doing fine and, if not perfect, that can be solved by throwing more taxpayer money at it and installing “the right people”.