After months of giving chaotic and counter-factual guidance — or none at all — on the coronavirus pandemic, the federal government now under President Biden has weighed in on vital concerns: individuals redoubling their self-protection, notably by wearing better or two face masks, and safely reopening schools for younger kids.
The new counsel from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may rile parts of the public, notably teachers’ unions and those who have fought health restrictions with cavalier and extreme claims that they somehow infringe on their personal rights.
But for many people, the evidence-based information will offer reinforcement of common-sense safeguards that reflect a shared altruism.
The CDC called for caution and science to guide educators in slowly returning youngsters to classrooms for in-person teaching, based in color-coded tiers tied to infection rates in communities. As the Washington Post reported:
“When infection rates in the community are higher, the agency recommends shifting to a combination of in-person and remote learning to minimize the number of people in school buildings at any given time. Fully remote learning is recommended only in certain cases when virus rates are very high. And while the CDC reiterated that states should prioritize teachers for vaccination, the agency said it is not a prerequisite for reopening. ‘Evidence suggests that many K-12 schools that have strictly implemented mitigation strategies have been able to safely open for in-person instruction and remain open,’ the agency said. ‘K-12 schools should be the last settings to close after all other mitigation measures in the community have been employed, and the first to reopen when they can do so safely.’
“It warned that even when schools take precautions, there will be infections and that schools need to be prepared to handle them. The agency recommended that school leaders engage with the entire school community in developing plans, which teachers’ unions have strongly advocated. It advised that elementary school students appear to face lower risks of in-school transmission. And it recommended school leaders prioritize instruction over extracurricular activities, citing certain indoor sports as particularly risky.”
These guidelines, the newspaper reported, may not differ greatly from what public health and federal officials have provided before. But the current administration, unlike its predecessor, hopes to work with communities, families, educators, and administrators to support and encourage school re-openings — and not to make them yet another battlefront in a political war, notably during a brutal presidential reelection campaign.
The administration, for example, has pushed for increased federal aid, so schools that re-open can increase their sanitation practices and improve ventilation systems. The CDC urged schools to ensure that hygiene for youngsters in classrooms be high, with frequent hand washing, appropriate distancing and opportunities, so kids can be outdoors and not indoors in closed, confined spaces. The agency also has called for stepped up testing and contact tracing.
Individual actions will be crucial in months ahead
For all Americans, the agency has urged a doubling down on face covering.
The CDC, noting the rise of coronavirus variants that are more contagious and debilitating, has told the public that the next few weeks will be crucial in the pandemic fight, especially if people will wear face coverings correctly, so they fit well and provide optimum protection.
N95 masks, without vents, are considered highly protective, based on studies conducted. These are not plentiful and should be reserved for health workers, the CDC said. The agency added that KN95 masks are more available, albeit at higher cost than paper surgical varieties, and individuals may wish to acquire stocks of these.
The paper surgical or cloth masks may be suitable for people if they are venturing outdoors, say for exercise like a walk.
But the agency also said that people who may be venturing into highly occupied and closed settings where the ventilation is less than optimal — think stores, hair or nail care salons, offices, or transportation hubs — may wish for the time being to consider double masking, wearing the surgical mask under a cloth mask that has a few layers itself.
The fit of the face covering is important, the CDC stressed, urging people to ensure the masks are snug to the face and they do not have gaps or leaks that allow the breath and potentially viral specks in and out. Suggestions abound on hacks or workarounds to improve masks’ comfort and fit. The CDC also has noted that the KN95 mask can be protective in single use and that doubling it with another covering may squash it down, so it is less effective.
The president and his officials have stressed, from day one of the administration, the importance of individual as well as collective steps to battle the pandemic and return the country to greater normality. Biden has said he wants to take the politics out of public health and has underscored that face covering, distancing, and other steps could save thousands of lives and bolster the rapidly improving but still challenged efforts to achieve widespread coronavirus protection via vaccines.
Vaccine supplies, scarce now, will improve soon, officials insist
The rough rollout of the vaccination campaign is ramping up and smoothing out, though vaccine demand still far exceeds supply. The administration, as it said it would, has agreed with makers, so the United States by summer will have enough quantities to vaccinate its adult population. Dr. Anthony Fauci, a leading infectious disease expert and the president’s advisor, forecast that by April that any patient who wants a coronavirus vaccination will get it. Depending on safety and effectiveness tests under way, children may start getting vaccines possibly in the fall.
Efforts are increasing to deal with information about the vaccines and concerns about the speed with which they were developed, as well as their safety and effectiveness. Federal officials also are moving to address equity issues in vaccination, including by opening mass sites and getting supplies to community clinics to better reach communities of color and under-served populations.
States also are working their way through groups, expanding and prioritizing the vaccination now of essential workers, notably teachers. Their powerful unions have argued that their members, including those who are older and have underlying health conditions, should not be put at risk with school re-openings and that vaccinating teachers and staff should occur, pronto.
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also their struggles to access and afford safe, efficient, and excellent health care. This has become an ordeal due to the skyrocketing cost, uncertainty, and complexity of treatments and prescription medications, too many of which turn out to be dangerous drugs.
Latest surge recedes, but what lessons were learned?
The pandemic, with months of a shambolic federal response, has exhausted the health care system, which needs our full support. Cases, infection rates, hospitalizations (especially in intensive care units), and deaths are receding nationwide, thankfully.
But we are far from done with this calamity. The disease itself, with variants and the likelihood of global inequities in vaccines and medical services that will allow infections to burn on, may be with us for a while. It is not magically going away. We have the capacity to get far better control of it, with protective measures (including vaccination), improved treatment (especially when health workers and hospitals are not overwhelmed), and awareness and vigilance.
We may gather invaluable facts and evidence about what works and what does not in our health system as we battle the coronavirus.
We must ensure that fringe groups with extreme views do not spread disinformation and falsehoods or engage in behaviors that put all of us at risk. We have much work to do to get our country not just over a pandemic but to a far better place.