Political Editors / January 10, 2022

In Brief: Abolish the CDC

And replace it with an agency that cares about science.

Health directives from the federal government have been as malleable as the variants of COVID-19. Some of that is to be expected as we better understand the virus and its transmission and treatment. But plenty of it smacks of political theater, and political analyst Oliver Wiseman says it’s time to move on.

“You do you.” That would be my three-word summary of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s updated guidance for people who catch Covid. The latest advice is a response to a backlash that followed its recent decision to cut its recommended isolation time from ten to five days and advise that if you’re asymptomatic you don’t need a negative test to leave quarantine.

The CDC flip-flop is yet another reminder that the agency is hardly involved in a dispassionate issuance of “the science.” The new guidance is little more than a sop to the Covid-cautious. It’s also a perfect example of the organization’s inability to provide Americans with the clear, straightforward guidance that they need.

According to the new advice, anyone who tests positive should isolate for five days. After five days, anyone who wants to take a test should do so, and if they still test positive should isolate for another five days. If you don’t choose to test again, you should be careful, not travel, maybe not go to restaurants and so on. “You should probably not visit grandma,” said CDC director Rochelle Walensky on Monday.

Like I said, you do you.

This move — the policy equivalent of a shrug — is another sign that, at least politically, we’re reaching the endgame of the pandemic.

Even some in the Biden administration, including the president, are beginning to admit that there’s not much the federal government can do. It could start with trustworthy guidance.

In the grand scheme of things, the CDC’s fuzzy guidance is only a minor failing in a long lists of pandemic slip-ups, not least because of how little credibility the agency has left. The CDC’s more serious crimes include its early testing blunder, when it eschewed the private sector, insisted on the in-house production of tests and then failed to produce a viable product. The CDC has also been consistently terrible at collecting data relating to the pandemic.

The agency famously botched early guidance on mask-wearing. Perhaps more shockingly, it’s still steering people away from the most protective masks and towards far less effective cloth alternatives. At present, their website reads: “DO NOT choose masks that are specially labelled ‘surgical’ N95 respirators, as those should be prioritized for healthcare personnel.”

That’s only scratching the surface, Wiseman says, and it doesn’t end with only the CDC. Thus, he concludes, abolition ought to be on the table.

I understand Covid fatigue, and a reluctance to engage in pandemic politics any further, but now would seem like a good time to reconsider the American state’s disease-fighting toolkit. And that process should arguably start with a blank sheet of paper. In other words, it might be time to rip it up and start again.

Here’s an idea that might actually have support from both sides of the aisle: abolish the CDC. Replace it with an organization designed to act swiftly, give clear advice and report to policymakers the latest science and data. That body should do so with an impartiality and epistemological humility that most public health officials have lacked in the last few years.

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