Mask or No Mask? Why We Don’t Have a Consistent Message on COVID-19

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Mask or No Mask? Why We Don’t Have a Consistent Message on COVID-19

Share on PinterestThe recommendations on wearing masks are part of the divergent messages the public is receiving about COVID-19. Noam Galai/Getty Ima

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The recommendations on wearing masks are part of the divergent messages the public is receiving about COVID-19. Noam Galai/Getty Images
  • The general public is receiving conflicting messages from a variety of sources about the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Experts say part of the reason is that the research and knowledge surrounding the novel coronavirus is changing as scientists learn more about the disease.
  • They add that some state officials and media outlets are putting out different information than the advisories issued by scientific experts.

The nation’s largest county is taking a step back, asking residents to wear a mask again while indoors, whether they’re vaccinated or not.

The move comes as the COVID-19 delta variant surges in Los Angeles and around the country among the unvaccinated.

However, the same day Los Angeles County officials announced its return to a mask mandate, Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told “NBC Nightly News” that her agency stands by its guidance that fully vaccinated people don’t need to wear a mask in most situations.

Earlier this month, the CDC advised that unvaccinated students wear masks as they head back to in-person learning this fall.

At the same time, officials in Arizona, Texas, Utah, and Iowa have banned mask mandates in schools.

In April, the CDC changed its guidelines, saying domestic and international travel was allowed for fully vaccinated Americans. However, Walensky said she still did not recommend nonessential travel because of the uptick in COVID-19 cases.

Got whiplash yet? Confused?

It may be difficult to keep up as federal agencies say one thing then another, and local jurisdictions put their own rules in place.

Experts say the message confusion is occurring, in part, because we’re watching the research into the novel coronavirus play out in real-time.

“Constant re-evaluation is the bedrock of good public health. In fact, good science,” said Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and a professor of health policy at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health in Washington, D.C.

“When we have a new disease, the science is constantly evolving, and you would expect the recommendations to change as a result,” she told Healthline. “At the beginning of the crisis, little was known, and yet decisions still had to be made.”

However, Wen says those decisions were sometimes hampered by political interference.

“During the pandemic, especially early on during the Trump administration, is when scientists were not allowed to speak to the American public directly without being censured for political aims,” she said.

“The job of public health officials is to convince individuals they have to do things that are different and might be uncomfortable,” Wen added. “That already is a Herculean task to accomplish this. So, if on top of this they are also facing political opposition, it becomes nearly impossible.”

Holley Wilkin, PhD, an associate professor of communication and public health at Georgia State University, says some confusing messaging seems to have started with whether to wear a mask.

“Some of the messaging and inconsistency that we got around face masks might have been somewhat from a practical standpoint, ” Wilkin told Healthline.

She said there were worries about needing the limited supply of masks for medical workers. Initially, health officials would tell the public to physically distance instead.

But then, that recommendation changed, and the public was asked to start wearing a cloth face covering or mask.

“I think that’s part of where some of that inconsistency came about,” Wilkin said. “People said: ‘You told us not to wear masks, then you told us to wear a mask. Then wear this kind of mask. It didn’t really seem like you knew what you were talking about.’”

“Then, you have more people potentially not going to trust those institutions,” she added. “We have the 24-hour news cycle, and people tuned into their niche source for messaging.

“Some of those sources of information were telling people the virus was a hoax, and it follows that you don’t need to be vaccinated,” Wilkin said.

U. S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said this week that the misinformation about COVID-19 and the vaccines is an “urgent threat” to public health. He is calling for a national effort to fight it.

Wen has a book coming out called “Lifelines: A Doctor’s Journey in the Fight for Public Health,” in which she talks about successes and failures and what the future of public health could look like.

She said there is a stark contrast between how the Biden administration handles the pandemic and how it was handled last year.

“There has been a night and day difference between the health officials and how they’ve been allowed to communicate to the public versus during the Trump administration,” Wen said.

“And there was no doubt that whatever data came out of the CDC and other scientific agencies that they were not somehow manipulated for political aims. That’s a marked improvement over the last administration,” she said.

But she says the Biden administration may have missed the mark on one advisory.

“I actually think the Biden administration has overcorrected in a sense. Saying that you should ‘follow the science’ does not mean that the only entity you listen to is the scientific institutions,” she added.

“The best example for this, I think, is when the CDC came out with their guidance on what fully vaccinated people are able to do. I understand that their intention was to communicate the science that fully vaccinated people no longer needed to be wearing masks,” she explained.

“However, the way the message came out, it essentially led to the end of the indoor mask mandates,” she added. “That was a major misstep. I think it could have been prevented if the Biden administration took a more active role in shaping policy.”

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