Political Editors / April 30, 2021

In Brief: Unmasking the Truth

There is some inconvenient truth regarding the CDC and its various pandemic declarations.

“How reliable are government declarations that mask mandates prevent the spread of the coronavirus?” Not very reliable, argue two Heritage Foundation scholars, Norbert J. Michel, Ph.D., and Doug Badger. They write:

Our recent experience with researchers from the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention has left us less than confident that the public should trust the CDC’s published research, much less any pronouncements based on that research.

Our problem involves a paper that the CDC published in November. The paper studies mask mandates in Kansas because, in July, Gov. Laura Kelly issued an optional mask mandate. Counties could decide whether to enforce the mandate or opt-out.

Many counties did opt-out, but the larger metropolitan areas did not. Overall, twenty-four counties implemented a mask mandate, and eighty-one opted out.

The CDC paper argues that the mandates were a success. In particular, the paper claims that “the increasing trend in COVID-19 incidence reversed” in the Kansas counties with mask mandates.

We noticed, however, that this conclusion is incorrect. As our paper shows, the trend did not reverse in those counties. Moreover, the growth in reported case incidence (and mortality) was, overall, virtually indistinguishable in counties with and without mask mandates.

It turns out that the CDC paper made an incorrect assertion because the authors used data that was later updated. As statistical studies go, this sort of mistake is surely forgivable.

However, the CDC’s refusal to publicly acknowledge this incorrect assertion — we corresponded with the main author, as well as several editors and an Associate Director for Policy at the CDC — is inexcusable. There simply is no room in legitimate scientific study for refusal to admit mistakes.

Our experience, sadly, is not unique. Even in those rare instances where government public health officials yield to scientific evidence and revise their recommendations, they seldom admit error.

The Heritage authors present other examples of abrupt changes in guidance the CDC made with little or no explanation, such as separating school desks by three feet (the international norm) instead of six feet, which led to unnecessary nationwide school closures.

The CDC changed its policy, but without acknowledging the damage its earlier recommendation inflicted on children, much less admitting error.

Unfortunately, throughout the pandemic, scientific facts have meant little.

That’s a big problem for millions of Americans.

Government officials and the American people depend on legitimate scientific study, and they have shown extraordinary deference to the CDC throughout the past year. This deference rests on the presumption that the agency’s recommendations to shutter businesses, close schools, restrict public worship, and enforce mask mandates have a solid basis in science.

That confidence, in many instances, appears to have been misplaced. As the public health emergency abates, Congress, the media, and the American public should heavily scrutinize the agency’s procedures and practices.

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