Reston, USA - April 9, 2020: Social distancing sign at cashier check-out aisle inside Trader Joe's grocery shop store during coronavirus with woman employee in mask.

Passing the Buck: What the CDC Guidance on Masks Gets Wrong About Public Health

By Carmel Shachar

As Americans shed their masks in response to recent U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance, the most vulnerable among us face an unfair choice: either to enforce public health hygiene or forgo being in public spaces entirely.

The new guidance, which states that fully vaccinated people can resume activities without wearing masks or socially distancing, is too nuanced for a country in which a significant percentage of adults continue to refuse vaccination and there are no mechanisms to enforce masking or social distancing for the unvaccinated.

Ultimately, this shift in policy unfairly burdens small businesses and individuals to be the guardians of public health, when it should be our community leaders responsible for enforcing public health norms.

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Herndon, USA - April 27, 2020: Virginia Fairfax County building exterior sign entrance to Mom's Organic Market store with request to wear face mask due to covid-19 pandemic.

Are Employers That Ditch Mask Mandates Liable for COVID-19 Infections at Work?

By Chloe Reichel

Last week, in response to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance indicating that vaccinated individuals need not wear face coverings indoors, a number of states and businesses swiftly did away with indoor mask mandates.

Widespread criticism followed, focusing on the dangerous policy vacuum that now exists. The CDC has suggested unvaccinated individuals follow an honor system and continue masking — but such an honor system is difficult, if not impossible, to enforce.

In the absence of indoor mask policies, individuals face increased risk of exposure to the virus. And some groups are particularly at risk of contracting the virus now, including immunocompromised individuals, for whom vaccines may not confer protection, and children under the age of 12, for whom a vaccine has not yet been authorized.

To better understand the new guidance and its implications for workers who are no longer protected by mask mandates, I spoke with Sharona Hoffman, an expert in health and employment law. Hoffman is the Edgar A. Hahn Professor of Law, a professor of bioethics, and Co-Director of Law-Medicine Center at Case Western Reserve University School of Law. In our interview, Hoffman explained whether an employer may be held liable if an employee contracts COVID-19 after an occupational exposure, and highlighted other key issues to anticipate regarding COVID-19 and the workplace.

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a crowd of people shuffling through a sidewalk

What Makes a Bad Public Health Decision? And How Can We Make Good Ones?

By Jennifer S. Bard

What makes a bad public health decision?

What we’ve seen across both the Trump and Biden administrations is that relying on the CDC’s medical model of decision-making isn’t working. No matter how sound the underlying science or medicine, public health guidance cannot be effective if its target audiences don’t understand it and it’s impossible to deploy.

The recent U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance suggesting that people who are vaccinated do not have to wear masks is an instructive example.

Reporters over the past few days have confirmed that this decision was made inside the CDC, by its director, without any notice to, let alone consultation of, the state and local health authorities, retailers, and schools that would have to implement it.

But the job of public health demands an approach that encompasses such groups. Unlike medical doctors (and practicing attorneys) who bear fiduciary duties to individual patients, public health professionals’ obligations are not to individuals, but to populations. And fulfilling these obligations is very hard. It’s one thing to tailor an intervention or craft an explanation for the person in front of you, and quite another to do the same for a community.

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A pile of three surgical masks.

Public Health Law vs. Individual Advice: Why Discarding Indoor Mask Mandates Is a Mistake

By Jennifer S. Bard

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced today that fully vaccinated individuals no longer need to wear masks indoors or outdoors in most cases.

The agency has emphasized that this is merely guidance, and is not intended to affect public policy or to change practices of private companies. But it is naïve to imagine that health departments and private organizations will not make changes in response to the announcement.

There is a growing public wish to put COVID-19 behind us by eliminating visible signs that it still exists (e.g., mask wearing). But guidance driven by this magical thinking will cause unnecessary harm. Public health measures should protect the larger population, including those who cannot be or have not yet been vaccinated. This CDC guidance proffers individual advice at the expense of the goals of public health.

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NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JUNE 06, 2020: A health care professional kneels in protest in New York City as part of the movement, 'White Coats for Black Lives,' during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Scope Creep: Serving Many Roles, Health Care Providers Need a Supporting Cast

By Christian Rose

During the COVID-19 pandemic, physicians and nurses have found themselves on the frontlines of more than just medical care, advocating for their patients, their families, and themselves. Facing overwhelm and burnout at a scale hitherto unimagined, they continue to fulfill their ethical obligations to their communities and their patients. If they don’t, who will?

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Waitress wears face mask and face shield, cleans table with alcohol and wet wipe at restaurant.

The Problem with Individual-Level Interventions to Curb the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Daniel Goldberg

The failure to control the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States rests, in part, on the individualist nature of our public health responses.

Public health simply does not work well when we base our interventions on the individual level. This is known as “methodological individualism,” and the evidence suggests it is both ineffective and can expand existing health inequalities. It is problematic in any public health context, but especially in pandemic response and control.

Take, for example, the ongoing debate over mask mandates. Multiple governors have refused to issue mask mandates, instead simply requesting that people don masks. The objection, interestingly, is not to the idea of masking as a public health intervention, but to the existence of a mandate itself.

Yet a model of public health which consists of nothing more than pleading with individuals to avoid behaving in ways injurious to public health would be an abject failure. Imagine if, instead of imposing minimum requirements for clean water, we simply asked regulated industries to avoid polluting watersheds. Or perhaps instead of passing laws discouraging or even criminalizing obviously harmful behavior, we simply asked people to avoid driving drunk.

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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Georgia, Atlanta USA March 6, 2020.

The Politics of CDC Public Health Guidance During COVID-19

A version of this post first ran in Ms. Magazine on October 28, 2020. It has been adapted slightly for Bill of Health. 

By Aziza Ahmed

In recent months, public health guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has become a site of political reckoning.

The agency has taken an enormous amount of heat from a range of institutions, including the executive and the public, during the COVID-19 pandemic. The former has sought to intervene in public health guidance to ensure that the CDC presents the President and administration’s response to COVID-19 in a positive light. The latter consists of opposed factions that demand more rigorous guidance, or, its opposite, less stringent advice.

Importantly, these tensions have revealed how communities experience the pandemic differently. CDC guidance has produced divergent consequences, largely depending on demographics. These differences have been particularly pronounced along racial lines.

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Highway alert: Covid-19 checkpoint ahead, overhead sign in Florida on state border.

Amending the Public Health Service Act to Encourage CDC Action to Stop COVID-19

By Jennifer S. Bard

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) already has all the power it needs to limit the movement of people in order to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Yet, throughout this pandemic, they have taken no steps beyond issuing stark warnings, which have been only marginally effective. For example, this Thanksgiving, estimates indicate that almost 5 million flew and up to 50 million drove to join others. Dr. Deborah Birx is warning that everyone who did so should consider themselves infected.

The CDC’s historic reluctance to institute the politically unpopular measure of restricting travel could be countered by adding a self-executing amendment to 42 U.S. Code 264 requiring that the option be assessed at the beginning of an outbreak and periodically reviewed. More specifically, this amendment should create a review committee and set metrics for travel restrictions.

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person wearing gloves holding HIV test

Southern Indiana’s HIV Outbreak: A Lesson on the Importance of Incentivizing HIV Testing

By 2015, major news outlets were reporting on what the CDC was calling “one of the worst documented outbreaks of HIV among IV users in the past two decades.” Between 2011 and 2015 over 200 people in southern Indiana’s Scott County acquired HIV. The primary source of the spread was the sharing of needles to inject opioid drugs. While the outbreak has now been contained, there linger many lessons to be learned from the tragedy that struck this small rural county in southeast Indiana.

Some of those lessons are about the havoc being wreaked on much of rural America by opioid abuse. But the lessons I’m focusing on here are the dangers of disincentivizing HIV testing, especially among high-risk populations like injection drug users. Read More

Ebola Update: Why Don’t We Seem to Care?

By Deborah Cho

It’s been over half a year since the beginning of the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa, yet the number of cases and deaths from the disease continue to rise.  The total case count as of September 29, 2014 is 6,574 and total deaths are at 3,091.  Even so, the international response, as a whole, seems to be lacking.  As I lived near the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia this past summer, I was acutely aware of the Ebola epidemic’s magnitude while it had the media’s attention.  The attention given was similar to that given to a car accident on the side of a road as onlookers drive on by without stopping to offer help.  Unfortunately, it was quite clear that aid efforts were woefully inadequate and that the disease would continue to spread rapidly without a stronger response.  It seemed that though our curiosity about this virus was at an all-time high, our national concern for the epidemic and its casualties were extremely minimal other than in the brief moments when we were faced with prospect of flying in two of our own infected citizens.  Read More