After almost a year and a half, here we are stuck in the middle again on COVID, masks and how best to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. In May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that fully vaccinated people didn’t need to wear masks indoors. Today, they reversed course.
In an afternoon news conference, officials acknowledged that coronavirus is surging in many parts of the country and recommended that even vaccinated people wear masks indoors in those areas. They also recommended that K-12 schools everywhere adopt a universal mask mandate for all students and staff regardless of vaccination status. It was an abrupt about face that underscored just how wrong they were to toss masks aside in the spring. Not only was that messaging from the CDC in May questionable, much of the media reported it in a superficial way making it more dangerous, with headlines like “Unmasking America: CDC says fully vaccinated can ditch the mask” perhaps leading some to think the nightmare was over and we could all go to the beach and get drunk again.
I have criticized the messaging and the media, and they both warrant plenty of blame. But as I walked through my favorite grocery store this weekend, which recently lifted its mask mandate and stopped sanitizing carts, I started to understand the depth of the information crisis in which we now live in visceral ways that I had not before. It gets real when you are standing next to a guy at the deli counter who is not wearing a mask, is not staying 6 feet away and is expectorating pieces of potato chips from his mouth as he loudly talks to his wife and shouts out his order over the counter. (I guess he couldn’t wait until he checked out to eat the chips he grabbed off the shelf.)
There are a constellation of forces at play in the confusion on masks and, indeed, the confusion in some minds about who is the real president of the United States and whether the events at the Capitol on Jan. 6 were an insurrection or a love-in. Sadly and menacingly, the information crisis cuts across all grains of American life.
In May, I questioned Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, for saying in a White House briefing that, “Anyone who is fully vaccinated can participate in indoor and outdoor activities — large or small — without wearing a mask or physical distancing … If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic … We have all longed for this moment when we can get back to some sense of normalcy.”
It is now clear that she and the White House oversold what vaccinated people could safely do. The intent was righteous: getting more people vaccinated. Presenting the vaccine as the gateway to the life we knew before COVID is a powerful message. President Joe Biden and Dr. Walensky were still pushing that line last week in suggesting that the pandemic only exists for those who are not vaccinated. “A pandemic of the unvaccinated,” is the phrase they used.
I take issue with that as long as unmasked people are standing next to me in grocery stores and I have no way of knowing if they are vaccinated or not. Either way, you don’t tell those of us who are vaccinated that we can now take off our masks and ignore social distancing before you know if those things are truly safe when you are talking about a virus that has killed more than 600,000 Americans.
We do need to get more people vaccinated, no doubt about it. But let’s think of new ways to use media to get the message out. Instead of pleading with those who have resisted getting the vaccine, as Mr. Biden has been doing, maybe it is time to get tougher. How about something on American TV like the Australian public service announcement that shows the face of young woman in close-up who is desperately gasping for breath as her panic mounts?
Titled “Don’t Be Complacent,” the ad goes to a black screen with the words. “COVID-19 can affect anyone. Stay Home. Get Tested. Book Your Vaccination.”
The PSA has sparked controversy for being too graphic. I say that’s a good thing. It tells you that the ad is hitting people where they live.
You know what really is too graphic?
David Zurawik is The Baltimore Sun’s media critic. Email: email@example.com; Twitter:@davidzurawik.