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Monday, June 14, 2021

Risky, premature

CDC advisory on masks risks sending wrong signals not just to Americans but to people across the world battling contagion

By: Editorial |
Updated: May 20, 2021 7:45:08 am
What has unfolded in India in the past two months should be warning enough about the pathogen’s ability to make assumptions of victory appear dangerously premature.

We have all longed for this moment. If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic,” Rochelle P Walensky, the director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said last week. This note of optimism set the tone for a significant and consequential advisory — fully vaccinated Americans can now give up the mask “unless required by federal, state or local rules, including business and workplace guidance”. Walensky — and the CDC — spoke from an apparent position of confidence. The US’s daily caseload has fallen by more than 30 per cent in the past three weeks and the country’s inoculation drive has gathered appreciable momentum after Joe Biden assumed office — more than 35 per cent US residents have received both shots of the vaccine. Nevertheless, America’s premier health protection agency ought to know better. In dealing with the virus, there is a thin line between confidence and complacency. What has unfolded in India in the past two months should be warning enough about the pathogen’s ability to make assumptions of victory appear dangerously premature.

The CDC believes that the relaxations will motivate more Americans to get vaccinated. But its decision to do away with the most elementary protection against the virus must be questioned not just because the US is a fair way away from achieving the 60-70 per cent inoculation required for herd immunity. There is also uncertainty over whether the vaccinated are immune to asymptomatic infection and if the shots will work against future mutants. Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s medical adviser, whose imprimatur the decision carries, contends that there “is solid data” on the efficacy of the vaccines. “Even though there are breakthrough infections with vaccinated people, almost always the people are asymptomatic, and the level of virus is so low. It’s extremely unlikely, not impossible but very, very low likelihood they are going to transmit it,” he reportedly said. There is, indeed, preliminary evidence that vaccines reduce transmission, but it is still not known if the reduced transmissibility will hold for future variants. Studies have also suggested that the virus could be with us for another two years. This is not to suggest the infallibility of such analyses — and care must be taken to guard against overweening pessimism. But the advisory risks sending wrong signals not just to Americans but to people in several parts of the world waging a grim battle against the contagion.

The decision has been criticised by US health workers’ associations, especially the National Nursing United, which contends that it “threatens the lives of patients, nurses, and other frontline workers”. California has said that it would keep its mask order in place for another month. Such messages of caution must be paid heed to and the precautionary principle should continue to guide decisions till there is conclusive evidence of the virus being vanquished. That moment is not yet here.

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