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Post-COVID, Reviving Trust in Public Health Officials Will Be Tough

At this year’s annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, panelists convened to discuss their “Global Risks Report 2024.”  

Among the many world problems they decided they needed to solve, they identified “misinformation and disinformation” as one of the most severe threats facing the planet in the near term.  

Public health officials, struggling mightily to conquer the ignorance of the masses for their own good, of course, were the victims.

In the World Economic Forum’s passionate panel discussion on the topic, “Liberating Science,” Naomi Oreskes, professor of the history of science at Harvard University, acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic vastly amplified the public’s lack of trust. “[T]here has been a deliberate attempt to inflame the public against experts, and we definitely saw this during the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said.

Conspicuously, the globalist jet-setters didn’t focus on the fact that much of the popular hostility to the public health “experts” during the COVID-19 pandemic was largely attributable to the experts themselves; specifically, their profoundly flawed and often contradictory messaging, their own inadequate information, and the devastating social, economic and educational consequences of their lockdown policies.  

Here in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been struggling to regain public trust in the aftermath of the pandemic. Recently, a major Health Affairs study of a large sample (4,208 respondents) of American public opinion found that only 42% of those polled reported “a great deal” of trust in the CDC, and the reasons for such relatively low trust had more to do with the agency’s reputed scientific expertise and much less to do with its actual performance.

The mystery is that CDC has retained as much popular trust as it has after the COVID-19 pandemic. After all, then-CDC Director Rochelle Walensky confessed to what ordinary folks had long known: “To be frank, we are responsible for some pretty dramatic, pretty public mistakes—from testing to data to communications.”

The list of COVID-related CDC miscommunications, missteps, and, yes, “disinformation” is long: Masking was initially ineffective, and then it was a crucial necessity; COVID-19 was transmissible from hard surfaces, until it wasn’t; natural immunity from infection was ignored, and then it contributed to relaxing previous restrictions imposed during the medical emergency.

And then, there are the vaccines. In December 2020, the Food and Drug Administration issued an Emergency Use Authorization for the COVID-19 vaccine.

In a news release, the FDA stated, “At this time, data are not available to make a determination about how long the vaccine will provide protection, nor is there evidence that the vaccine prevents transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from person to person.”

Nevertheless, on Jan. 7, 2021, less than a month later, Walensky tweeted: “I’ve never had more faith in the promise of science and the power of hope to get us through this. I urge all Americans to get vaccinated as soon as you’re able, wear a mask and stop the spread.”

Walensky’s tweet was flatly inconsistent with the FDA’s statement and basic scientific principles of empirical data and fact-based reasoning.

And it got worse. President Joe Biden in 2021 claimed—without supporting data—that the pandemic was a “pandemic of the unvaccinated” and proposed an unprecedented set of mostly illegal vaccine mandates. Meanwhile, the CDC, without collecting the relevant hospital data, simply attributed the sharp increases in hospitalizations in 2021 to persons who had not been vaccinated.

In fact, as analysts from The Heritage Foundation demonstrated by 2022, the accumulating data proved that most hospitalized COVID-19 patients were indeed vaccinated. (The Daily Signal is the news outlet of The Heritage Foundation.)

Current CDC Director Mandy Cohen has been urging people to get a full range of vaccinations against respiratory diseases, while emphasizing that “this new COVID vaccine is updated to match the changes in the virus.”

Cohen says COVID-19 vaccination is for everyone “six months and older.” Of course, she does mention that the risk/benefit calculations for the coronavirus vis-à-vis the vaccine vary dramatically from persons six months to 60 years and older and vary also with the presence or absence of underlying health conditions.  

The tepid public response to her exhortations is a “communications” problem in Cohen’s view, and is attributable to a combination of information overload and vaccine hesitancy. “I worry,” she says, “with so much information that were not going to break through with a couple of key points.”

The well-documented federal mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis has indeed resulted in a dangerous increase in vaccine hesitancy beyond just COVID-19 vaccines, generating a broader skepticism about vaccination against various illnesses, some of them serious.

Even Dr. Anthony Fauci, former medical adviser to Presidents Donald Trump and Biden, now concedes that the ill-conceived COVID-19 vaccine mandates could have contributed to this unhealthy growth in general vaccine hesitancy.

American citizens deserve to be treated like intelligent and resilient adults. Public health officials should be fully transparent, provide the best data-driven information available, admit their own fallibility upfront and freely acknowledge their uncertainty about a specific vaccine, medication or recommendation.

Science should drive policy, rather than policy—let alone politics—driving science. The failure of the of the CDC during the pandemic was attributable not only to a series of inconsistent recommendations and mixed messaging, but also to a growing perception among millions of Americans that politics—not science—were influencing its COVID-19 recommendations.

It was a perception reinforced by revelations that a powerful teachers union influenced CDC guidance on school reopenings.  

Science is not static. By presenting not only demonstrable, evidence-based results, but also repeatable and certifiable research methods and studies, scientists have been open to scrutiny and civil debate to improve collective understanding.

With COVID-19, unfortunately, we witnessed attempts to suppress scientific dissent.

Officials at the National Institutes of Health attempted to marginalize prominent epidemiologists who dissented from the prevailing views of federal public health officials on the wisdom of comprehensive social and economic lockdowns.

Scientific study, properly performed, is not in the business of “canceling” dissenters. Rather, it invites questioning, and it needs debate and continual intellectual investigation as the essential condition for scientific progress.

Instead of “here are the facts,” too often the official data-free response was “because I said so.”

Restoring public trust in public health agencies will take time. But the task is nonetheless urgent, and it begins with public health officials themselves.

Have an opinion about this article? To sound off, please email letters@DailySignal.com and we’ll consider publishing your edited remarks in our regular “We Hear You” feature. Remember to include the url or headline of the article plus your name and town and/or state.

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