How can the average American minimize risk while resuming normal activities after one year plus of pandemic disruptions? That’s the ultimate example of “news you can use” right now.
Here’s what I am seeing across the media landscape. One: Articles and TV segments are helping to shift the conversation about Covid-era restrictions, especially among vaccinated adults. Two: Analysts are calling out the government’s guidance when it’s overly cautious. Three: Interviewers are presenting those concerns and questions to health experts and elected officials.
In the past few days, I’ve watched CNN’s John Berman question CDC director Rochelle Walensky about way-too-complex guidance; NBC’s Savannah Guthrie press Dr. Anthony Fauci about masks outdoors at summer camps; and CNN’s Alisyn Camerota challenge Washington, DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser about a widely mocked rule against dancing.
In this way, the press is standing up for common sense and helping the country navigate a gradual way out of the pandemic thicket.
Next: Questions about indoor mask mandates?
Questions about indoor mask mandates are increasingly on the table, as well. CNBC’s Shep Smith asked former FDA commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb on Thursday, “When do you think the CDC can have a meaningful conversation about lifting the mask mandates indoors?” Smith seemed surprised when Gottlieb answered, “I think we can do it right around now. I think we should start lifting these restrictions as aggressively as we put them in.” His rationale: “We need to preserve the credibility of public health officials to perhaps reimplement some of these provisions as we get into next winter, if we do start seeing outbreaks again.”
Some people will read those quotes and try to tap on the proverbial brakes, believing it’s too soon for a revision of indoor mask mandates. Others will observe that it is already happening in many states. The point is: A huge, nationwide reassessment of risk is underway. For example, a White House reporter posed this question to President Biden on Friday: “You walked out to the podium with your mask on. Why do you choose to wear a mask so often when you’re vaccinated and you’re around other people who are vaccinated?” His answer: “When we’re inside, it’s still good policy to wear the mask.”
It’s obvious that Biden is trying to model safe behavior. But it’s just as important when he models what vaccinated people can do safely — as he did by stepping off Air Force One without a mask on Thursday. It’s a signal to vaccinated people of what they can do now, and a signal to the unvaccinated of the benefits of getting the shots.
The pandemic is still a present-tense threat. Lives are still being taken. Some people and places are much more vulnerable than others. Vaccination rates are slowing. Pandemic trauma is real, and the fears of a resurgence are also real. Recovery is different for different people. Folks should be able to move at their own pace.
Now, all that said, recovery is a must. And I think the small-bore Twitter-type debates about whether and when to wear masks outdoors (which, I admit, I’ve been a part of) miss the much bigger story.
Many Americans are striving for more normalcy in their lives every day post-vaccine. But many others are confused by the maze of rules and recommendations and are inclined to keep laying low. (And many of the vaccinated people trying to return to normal are confused too.) The media’s role is to cut through that confusion and give people the information they need to stay as safe as possible while getting back to their lives as fast as possible.
“Leaders need to model good public health guidance,” CNN medical analyst and former Baltimore health commissioner Dr. Leana Wen told me. “That means modeling caution when that’s warranted and hope when that’s needed. In this ‘in between’ time, when both caution and hope are needed, we really need leaders to do both, and demonstrate the road map back to normal while also showing where caution is still needed.”
I found that to be a helpful way of thinking about this stage: “In between” time. We have to “unlearn” some behaviors, but not all the way, and we have to respect the whiplash that folks are feeling.
No mocking, no shaming
Wen also said the messaging about risk needs to be a lot clearer. “There are two main points: Outdoors is really safe, even for unvaccinated people,” she said. “We don’t need masks outdoors except in large crowds. Also, vaccinated people pose very little risk to public health. Those fully vaccinated should be able to return to any level of activity they choose.”
“Those who want caution shouldn’t be mocked, but those who want to return to pre-2020 life shouldn’t be shamed either,” she added. “Focus our attention to those who are not vaccinated — they are at high risk for contracting and spreading coronavirus.”
As of Friday, more than a third of the US population is fully vaccinated against Covid-19. In an interview with CNN’s Ana Cabrera on Friday, focus group leader Frank Luntz listed three ways to convince more people to get vaccinated. “The key to messaging is, it’s what you get,” like reuniting with family, he said.
Here are two articles that shaped my thinking this week
Coincidentally, both were published by the Washington Post, and both are from professors:
• “The coronavirus pandemic marks the clearest dividing line in most of our lives,” Dr. Ashish K. Jha wrote. “But while the pandemic had a clear beginning, the ending will be much more gradual.”
• Joseph G. Allen wrote about how almost everything is now about “personal risk tolerance,” i.e., doing whatever you feel comfortable doing: “The U.S. is entering into a new phase of the pandemic, in which decisions about things such as masking outdoors and going to a restaurant shift from being a debate about public risk to individual risk.”
‘America’s Covid vaccine hesitation is an insult to countries in need’
“As a field producer covering vaccine hesitancy in rural America, I’ve been hearing from people who sit on the extremes of the vaccination hesitation spectrum,” Julia Jones wrote in this opinion piece for CNN.com.
Jones recounts what residents in rural Oregon said — for example, “a woman of advanced age breathlessly explained to me how she was never taking the vaccine because Covid-19 ‘is just the flu'” — and reflects on what her family members and friends in Brazil are going through. “Brazil is struggling not only to import vaccines but with a massive Covid wave,” she wrote.