Virologist: ‘Difficult to trust the CDC’ after failures in communicating guidance
The death toll from COVID-19 in United States has topped 200,000, a figure no one could have imagined when the pandemic first started.
“Certainly in my field, we know that this number of deaths can happen with a pandemic, … the 1918 influenza pandemic is thought to have killed millions of people worldwide, up to 100 million people in some cases,” Columbia virologist Dr. Angela Rasmussen told KIRO Radio’s Gee & Ursula Show. “So we know that this is possible, but back in January, February, it certainly didn’t seem conceivable to us at the time that this particular virus would cause this many deaths in the United States.”
“In part because I believed then, and many of my colleagues did too, that we would respond to it effectively,” she added.
Dr. Rasmussen recognized that it’s heartbreaking to hear about 200,000 lives lost, possibly more, and scary to look forward at the models projecting even more deaths in the coming months.
“I think a lot of us right now are really exhausted,” she said. “I know I am, certainly. And we’re tired of this, … and it feels kind of hopeless, but I’d encourage people to not feel hopeless and to get mental health care if you are feeling hopeless.”
“This is a marathon and not a sprint, and that’s what people have been saying from the beginning. But it’s really true,” she added. “We’re going to have to rely on each other to get through this.”
Rasmussen referred to this as a “generational pandemic.”
“It’s nothing like any of us have ever lived through before, and it’s traumatizing, and we need to do right for ourselves and each other so that we can all get through this on the other side,” she said.
What’s happening at the CDC?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention posted guidance on Friday, stating that the inhalation of the virus is the main method of transmission, Rasmussen explained.
“They also included guidance, which is actually still up, about increasing ventilation, avoiding enclosed spaces,” she said. “These are situations in which we know aerosol or droplet transmission by inhaling the virus is likely to occur.”
The CDC has since taken part of the guidance down and said it was a draft that wasn’t supposed to be posted yet. So should we still trust the CDC?
“I think that right now it’s very difficult to trust the CDC because there have been so many failures in communicating evidence based guidance to the public,” Rasmussen said. “There have been these flip-flops, both on the issue of transmission and the main modes in which the virus is transmitted, as well as conflicting guidance about when to get tested and who should be able to access testing. So I think that, unfortunately, the CDC has been compromised.”
Some reporting suggests it’s due to political meddling from the United States Department of Health and Human Services, which is the agency that oversees the CDC, Rasmussen said.
“Right now, I never thought I would say this, but it is very difficult to take the CDC seriously when they are engaging in so many serious errors in communicating evidence-based guidance to the public,” she said.
She clarified that no one is going to be right all of the time, but it matters how the corrections are communicated to the public.
“I do think that Tony Fauci has provided a lot of excellent guidance. He hasn’t been right all the time, but that’s actually normal. I haven’t been right all the time either, most of my colleagues haven’t been right all the time,” she said. “The problem with this virus, I think, is a fundamental misunderstanding about how the scientific process works.”
“Scientists found out, Dr. Fauci, I, everybody else working in public health, found out about this virus at the same time the rest of the world did,” she added. “So early on, especially, we made some assumptions about the virus, and some of those turned out to be incorrect. The important thing is people can clearly communicate when they are making those corrections.”
The good news about the CDC debacle, Rasmussen says, is that there’s evidence the CDC believes we need to think about more ways to protect against this virus.
“It does suggest that they are accepting the evidence that we need to think about more things besides just physical distancing and surface decontamination, ultimately getting all on the same page about this, which is scientific consensus, that you can inhale this virus,” she said. “And it’s common sense too, a respiratory virus should be transmissible by inhalation. I think that the CDC at least accepting that, showing that they are thinking about that kind of guidance, does suggest that they are going to be more clear about that so that people will have more ways to protect themselves and to reduce their risk.”
Should we be wearing eye protection?
While there’s not a lot of good data right now on ocular transmission, Rasmussen says it’s not a bad idea to wear eye protection.
“How often [COVID is] transmitted by this route is very difficult to say, but eye protection certainly doesn’t hurt,” she said. “One thing to keep in mind is that risk production is really additive, so the more measures that you can take to reduce your exposure risk, the better.”
“That means high protection masks, physical distancing, increased ventilation if possible, avoiding close spaces, avoid crowds, and wash your hands,” she added. “If you can do as many of those things as possible in a given circumstance, you’re going to reduce your risk even more. So I try to suggest to people that if you can’t wear glasses and you don’t have eye protection, that’s OK, but just maybe do these other things instead. If you can add eye protection or if you do wear glasses, then that’s fantastic. It certainly doesn’t hurt.”
Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.