WASHINGTON — People fully vaccinated against the coronavirus finally have guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But that guidance, issued on Monday, seems to have raised as many questions as it answered. Even as that guidance permitted small gatherings of unmasked people, it made no concessions to those wanting to travel or gather in somewhat larger groups.
Hoping for a green light, vaccinated Americans got a flashing yellow instead.
That has left some wondering whether post-vaccine life is going to be all that different, in the near term, than life without the vaccine.
“If people believe the vaccine is not going to improve their life,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, “why would they get it?”
Adalja said the CDC is waiting for “ironclad data” about vaccination before issuing a more detailed guidance. The initial data from Israel, which has the highest coronavirus vaccination rates in the world, is “highly encouraging,” he said. But apparently not encouraging enough for the CDC to give an all-clear to Americans who’ve had their shots.
The new guidance says small groups of vaccinated people can gather maskless. Vaccinated grandparents can see their unvaccinated grandchildren. But the new guidance still recommends against travel, so grandparents whose reunion with the little ones is a train or plane ride away are supposed to wait.
Of course, some people may disregard such guidance altogether, while others will comply. But some are bound to wonder why they should get vaccinated in the first place if the vaccine is not the passport to freedom it had been made out to be. Should such hesitation prevent people from getting vaccinated, new strains of the coronavirus could proliferate, and that, in turn, could prolong the pandemic for grandparents, grandchildren and everyone in between.
CDC spokesman Thomas W. Skinner defended the new guidelines in an email to Yahoo News. “It’s a good first step until we have more people vaccinated and data around vaccine effectiveness when it comes to real world circumstances,” he wrote. “Until then it’s important to minimize cohorting of people, especially those at high risk, even if they’re vaccinated.”
The CDC was badly battered throughout 2020, particularly after then-President Donald Trump silenced the agency during the first months of the pandemic. Every guidance the CDC issued, whether on wearing masks or reopening schools, was intensely scrutinized for signs of political interference.
The Biden administration has taken pains to demonstrate that no such interference is taking place. At the same time, collisions between science and politics are inevitable. Last month, for example, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow that teachers did not need to be vaccinated in order to return to the classroom. White House press secretary Jen Psaki quickly knocked down that assertion, telling reporters that Walensky had been speaking to Maddow “in her personal capacity.”
The skirmish was slight but also significant, a hint of how difficult it is to keep politics entirely out of science.
To be sure, President Biden is desperate to declare the pandemic over, but he and his advisers are acutely aware that community spread remains brisk in parts of the country. The rise of new coronavirus variants adds a perilous dose of unpredictability. And though more than 2 million people are being vaccinated daily, more than 90 percent of the American population remains unvaccinated.
That makes an already skittish agency worried that packed airplanes and concert halls could threaten the gains made throughout the last several months. “The CDC is not a risk-taking institution,” said Dr. Kavita Patel, a physician and public health expert affiliated with the Brookings Institution. “They’re going to be incredibly cautious.”
Caution has its benefits, but also its downsides. If the vaccine doesn’t mean pre-pandemic levels of freedom, then what does it mean?
That’s the question that worries former Food and Drug Administration head Dr. Scott Gottlieb. “If we continue to be very prescriptive and not give people a realistic vision for what a better future is going to look like, they’re going to start to ignore the public health guidance,” he said in a CNBC appearance after the post-vaccination guidance was issued on Monday.
Emergency physician and former Baltimore health commissioner Dr. Leana Wen also thought the guidance fell short of what it could have been. “While some guidance is better than no guidance, the guidelines are too timid and too limited, and they fail to tie reopening guidance with vaccination status,” she wrote in the Washington Post. “As a result, the CDC missed a critical opportunity to incentivize Americans to be vaccinated.”
The perfectly understandable desire to return to normal as quickly as possible can obscure the fact that the first doses of coronavirus vaccine were administered in December. A “more liberalized” guidance should come “this spring or summer,” said Dr. Peter J. Hotez, an infectious disease specialist at Baylor College of Medicine.
Whenever that updated guidance does arrive, it will encounter a public increasingly anxious to resume whatever passes for ordinary life in 2021. Patel, the Brookings-affiliated public health expert, believes that come Thanksgiving, people will probably be able to travel to see loved ones. What’s more, they will likely be able to do so without masks, if enough people get the coronavirus vaccine now.