On Monday, July 26, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) told Americans to “get vaccinated as soon as you can so you can get back to the things you love.”
For at least a year now, this has been the promise: once you get vaccinated, you can get back to your normal life. It was the message consistently driving President Trump’s historically successful Operation Warp Speed, and it’s been the one that President Biden has repeated for most of his presidency — until now.
One day after that tweet, the CDC abruptly reversed course, issuing confusing new guidance that vaccinated Americans should mask up throughout most of the country, regardless of vaccination status. That is a complete 180 degrees from just 60 days ago. It’s yet another broken promise from President Biden, who said in May that “[i]f you’re fully vaccinated and can take your mask off, you’ve earned the right to do something that Americans are known for all around the world: greeting others with a smile.” If any Americans whatsoever are smiling after the CDC’s new guidance, it’s impossible to tell from behind their masks.
I have said it before, and I will say it again: everyone should get vaccinated. We can and should continue to provide information, debunk misinformation, and provide access to vaccinations. However, what can we do when the main agency in charge of our nation’s public health response is the one sowing confusion and fear?
Despite all of the campaign promises about “following the science,” the new CDC guidelines don’t appear to do so. Instead of providing clear, verifiable data for why this dramatic shift was supposedly necessary, the CDC is back to telling Americans to limit their liberties simply because they said so. The COVID-19 vaccine is an unparalleled achievement that has proven its efficacy many times over, as reflected in the exceptionally low prevalence of severe outcomes among the vaccinated. Any mandates that undermine that fact without clear science-based reasoning further undermine Americans’ already fragile trust in the CDC.
Additionally, multiple studies have demonstrated that children under the age of 12 are at incredibly low risk from COVID-19. Despite that fact, the CDC claims that mandates are the key to getting children back in the classroom. This argument would be more convincing if — just a day later — the largest national teacher’s union president didn’t use that very guidance to justify waffling on whether or not schools would reopen in the fall. After a devastating year during which students were stuck at home, suicide rates rose dramatically, and opioid overdoses spiked, our nation’s students deserve more than half-hearted tries and mandates—they deserve a quality in-person education and the opportunity to excel.
On Wednesday morning, one day after releasing the new guidance, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky insisted, “[o]ur vaccines are working just as we thought they would with the Delta variant, to prevent hospitalization and death.” She is right! The CDC has announced that as of July 19, of the 161 million fully vaccinated Americans, just 6,000 have been hospitalized due to “breakthrough cases.”
Why then, if vaccines are working as intended, should vaccinated Americans now be forced to wear masks? Nobody expected the vaccine to entirely eliminate the chance of infection. The vaccines were supposed to protect us “against severe COVID hospitalization and death,” which is exactly what Walensky acknowledges it’s done. Recent studies have shown that 99 percent of people currently hospitalized with the virus are unvaccinated.
And for those hold-outs who refuse to get vaccinated, the CDC’s new anti-science guidelines will simply discourage them further. Why would a middle school student get vaccinated if she is at a very low risk of infection and has to wear a mask in class regardless? Or why would you get vaccinated if you feel your government has lied to you about getting your life back to normal? Why would you get vaccinated if the government is implying the vaccine doesn’t actually work?
The truth is that these vaccines work, and Americans should get vaccinated. But for them to do so, they need to have trust in their government. The CDC’s total lack of transparency or consistency here demands serious scrutiny. That is why I introduced the Restore Public Health Institution Trust Act, legislation that would force the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to review the CDC’s decision-making and messaging and provide recommendations. A GAO review would breathe transparency into an entirely opaque, deeply confusing, and often contradictory process that has major ramifications on Americans’ lives.
Americans made extraordinary sacrifices over the last 18 months, including hysterical measures like keeping schools closed. What kept Americans going, despite it all, was the promise that through their sacrifice, we could go back to normal at the end.
The Biden CDC just shattered that promise, and the American people deserve transparency as to why. If the Biden administration believes the CDC followed the science, they will welcome the opportunity to rebuild faith. If the CDC acted out of political expediency, then reforms are desperately needed. Either way, it is time for America’s public health czars to open the books and play it straight with the American people for once.
Marco Rubio is a U.S. senator from Florida.