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Tell the truth, it’s the easiest thing to remember


I continue to find the idea that the job of the CDC should be to manipulate the public with Straussian eleven-dimensional chess rather than communicating accurate scientific information to be baffling, and I’m glad Rochelle Walensky is following the “tell the actual truth” model:

The most recent instance, when Dr. Walensky announced that vaccinated people could go mask-free indoors, was supported by the latest research, scientists said. But many felt the agency had rushed the decision to end mask use without considering parts of the country where infections were still high, and without grasping the mistrust and culture clashes the new advice would engender.

“C.D.C. got the medical and epidemiological science right, but what they did not get right was the behavioral science, the communications and working collaboratively with other stakeholders,” Dr. Gounder said. “That was a big oversight.”

Data since the announcement seem to have proved Dr. Walensky correct: Infections are still declining, even as much of the country reopens at a vigorous pace. And as promised, the agency has set about issuing more practical masking guidance regarding settings like summer camps (mostly no) and public transportation (yes).

Policymaking is complicated and involves a lot of different considerations; the role of the CDC should be to provide policymakers and the public with the most accurate information possible.

Overconfidence about the effects of policy in masks in the late stages of the pandemic is particularly unwarranted. It is true, for example, that Texas lifting its mask mandate early did not have the catastrophic impact that many people (including me) assumed. If you work at Politico or Axios, this is reason to immediately declare that Greg Abbott WON THE PANDEMIC. But the problem is that none of the economic benefits Abbott claimed would come from lifting the mandate happened either, because people essentially kept doing whatever they were already doing regardless:

Yet another explanation is that Abbott’s decision didn’t matter because nobody changed their behavior. According to the aforementioned Texas paper, Abbot’s decision had no effect on employment, movement throughout the state, or foot traffic to retailers. It had no effect in either liberal or conservative counties, nor in urban or exurban areas. The pro-maskers kept their masks on their faces. The anti-maskers kept their masks in the garbage. And many essential workers, who never felt like they had a choice to begin with, continued their pre-announcement habits.The governor might as well have shouted into a void.

Across the country, in fact, people’s pandemic behavior appears to be disconnected from local policy, which complicates any effort to know which COVID-19 policies actually work.

In essence, governors in red states with large, liberal urban areas like Abbott and DeSantis got bailed out by the fact that a lot of people continued to take sensible precautions, and people in MAGA areas weren’t complying anyway. (In the Dakotas, conversely, DeSantisian nihilism was a disaster.) And given that there was little coercive enforcement of mask rules even in deep blue urban jurisdictions, this probably should be less surprising that it seems. Mask mandates in the earlier stage of the pandemic did reduce the spread of COVID, but it was probably inevitable that they would lose efficacy over time, particularly as vaccines became more widely available.

At any rate, the limited effect of policy changes in the later stages of the pandemic is all the more reason for the CDC to just focus on providing accurate scientific information.

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