In retrospect, it seems clear that only a strong C.D.C. — a well-funded, well-run federal authority, grounded in science and resistant to political pressure but also mindful of lived reality — could have rescued American policymakers from the worst of their Covid confusion. And only a stronger C.D.C. stands a chance of correcting these errors when the next pandemic comes along. But the federal agency is just one part of a much larger system, and other components of that system must work properly — and together. For much of the last year, they have not.
Federal agencies like the Department of Education have not stepped in to help schools confront the challenges of infection control, for example. And while many communities have made heroic efforts to beat the virus back, state and local officials have not always done as much as they could to build trust or secure community support for needed measures. Too often, they fell prey to political bickering and wielded data points as weapons instead of as tools to improve safety. Fear and frustration have prevailed as a result, even as the pandemic wanes — and especially when it comes to schools. While some parents rage over mask mandates and contact-tracing regimes, others say they won’t return or send their children back, even with every precaution in place, until every last person is vaccinated. The fault lines of this divide are familiar, but somehow knowing where they lie has not helped the nation avoid them.
The C.D.C.’s institutional cautiousness and muddy messaging have not helped. “The C.D.C. is like an elephant turning around in a camp tent,” Allen says. “It does not realize that when it turns all these other things have to turn around it.” But the problem is much bigger than messaging or guidelines. The U.S. public-health apparatus is vast and unwieldy. Its components are supposed to work closely together but are instead disconnected from one another, and there is little awareness of this problem or of the impact it has on broader response efforts. Neither the C.D.C. nor the entities it serves seem to have an understanding of what federal disease control is supposed to do, or what the limits of the current system actually are. “C.D.C. updates its guidelines, and half of America thinks that means the rules have changed,” Allen says. “But C.D.C. does not make the rules, states and cities do.”’
Only a stronger C.D.C. stands a chance of correcting these errors when the next pandemic comes along.
Without that basic understanding, nuanced discussion has been difficult, and rare. “We’ve spent a whole year debating things like six feet versus three feet, and masks versus no masks,” Friedhoff, from the Covid Collaborative, told me. “But the answers to these questions are totally context-dependent. The way you layer infection-control measures in a school depends on what your building looks like, how many students you have and so on.” That, she says, is the understanding that public-health groups need to instill in educators, business owners and average people. But so far, it has been lost in all the noise.
A perfect case study is Manatee County, in western Florida, which decided to open its school doors to full-time in-person instruction in January. Kevin Chapman, the district’s strategic planning director, relied heavily on the C.D.C.’s guidance. “It was the only thing we had to go by, the only authority or expertise we could lean on,” he says. The guidelines were hardly perfect: They appeared to have been written by medical professionals who had never set foot in a school. And the district had no meaningful support when it came to translating them. The state’s governor, Ron DeSantis, routinely undermined the C.D.C. in his remarks, which by extension seemed to throw the efforts of Chapman and his colleagues under suspicion too. But the team did the best they could. They set up an operations center, educated themselves in the delicate science of contact-tracing and worked with their local health department to hew as closely as possible to what the federal agency had laid out.
They managed to keep the virus at bay. There were no school outbreaks and no closures between January, when schools reopened, and late May, when the school year finally ended. But even so, the district plans to abandon almost all of its current protocols when the next school year begins: no masks, no contact tracing and none of the other edicts that have helped keep the virus in check. Chapman worries that this is too much, too soon, but his team has little recourse. DeSantis has lifted the state mask mandate, and for weeks, a contingent of vocal parents crowded into school-board meetings to demand that the school district follow suit. Never mind that the C.D.C. quickly clarified that its loosened guidelines didn’t apply to schools. “They yell and threaten us,” Chapman says. “They tell us that it doesn’t matter what the C.D.C. says. That if DeSantis has lifted the mask mandate, schools should do the same.”