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Confusion is also a COVID-19 variant. The CDC is spreading it.

Public discontent with the agency’s muddled guidelines is spiking along with caseloads.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

Five or 10 days of isolation? Cloth masks or medical-grade N95s? To rapid test or not to rapid test after infection?

Confusion is also a COVID-19 variant. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is spreading it.

With Omicron and Delta driving COVID cases to terrifying new heights, Americans should be able to look to the CDC as its compass for navigating yet another wave in yet another year of this pandemic. Instead, a stream of murky, contradictory messages has Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC’s director, spending as much time defending and amending her COVID guidelines as issuing them.


In late December, Walensky abruptly cut the recommended isolation for COVID breakthrough cases from 10 to five days if symptoms subside. It wasn’t a good look that she issued this perplexing rule days after officials for Delta Airlines, experiencing major staffing shortages, asked the CDC to “shorten the isolation period from 10 days to five days for fully vaccinated people who are experiencing a breakthrough infection.”

Nowhere in its guidance did the CDC recommend a negative antigen test as a condition for that shortened isolation. After a backlash, Walensky said people could take a COVID test before leaving isolation “if they want to” or “have access to a test.” A wan suggestion, hardly an official recommendation.

As long lines at testing centers and empty drugstore shelves attest, it’s absurdly difficult to get a COVID test. That’s probably why Walensky never recommended testing, the better to not call attention to a problem the Biden administration promised to fix.

“It does feel like a bit of a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure,’” Dr. Céline Gounder, an epidemiologist and former member of the Biden-Harris COVID transition team, said on “CBS This Morning.”


After the Trump administration’s malicious incompetence during the pandemic led to hundreds of thousands of preventable COVID deaths and damaged the CDC’s reputation, there was a reasonable expectation that a new president and CDC director would raise the very low bar set by their predecessors.

There have been some successes. On the Biden administration’s watch, more than 62 percent of Americans are now “fully vaccinated.” That still means at least two shots administered. However, for some unknown reason the CDC has yet to change that definition even as its officials emphasize the need for a booster.

About one-third of those eligible have gotten a booster shot. On Wednesday, the CDC recommended a Pfizer booster for kids between 12 and 15 who received their second dose at least five months ago.

Certainly, the CDC wants to get its COVID response right not only to restore its image but to save lives. Yet the agency has been vexed by unforced errors that have public discontent spiking right along with caseloads. Sadly, this isn’t new.

Last April, Dr. Leana Wen, a CNN medical analyst, wrote a Washington Post op-ed criticizing the CDC’s “overly cautious guidelines” for the vaccinated and claimed the agency was fostering a “very damaging narrative” about vaccine efficacy. Shortly thereafter and with only 35 percent of Americans fully vaccinated, the CDC suddenly lifted its mask advisory in what Walensky portrayed as a kind of reward for the vaccinated.

Gee, I thought the reward for getting vaccinated against COVID was lowering the chance of serious illness, hospitalization, or death.


Of course, the unvaccinated also tossed their masks since there was no way to know who was vaccinated. To perhaps only Walensky’s surprise, an honor system she and the CDC trusted failed immediately.

A few months later on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Walensky was unraveling what she acknowledged was “confusion” over the CDC’s messaging on who should get a vaccine booster and when they should get it. More recently, as the highly transmissible Omicron variant became dominant, health experts said that medical-grade masks are more effective than cloth masks. That was last month. The CDC has yet to offer the same recommendation.

I don’t believe the CDC is intentionally sabotaging this nation’s COVID response. Yet whether it’s the malevolence of one administration or disjointed messaging from its successor, the end result remains the same — eroding trust in an agency for which public trust is paramount.

A recent episode of “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah” mocked the CDC’s self-inflicted troubles. “If you test positive for COVID, you only have to isolate for five days — five Martian days. They’re slightly longer than Earth days, so that probably helps,” Desi Lydic, one of its correspondents, said. “If you can’t find a test, get a strong-scented marker and see if you can smell it. If you can’t, you probably have COVID.”

That segment was funny. The CDC’s incessant bungling is not.


Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.