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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3D rendering of COVID-19 virus.

Consider the Fundamentals of Viruses When Crafting Law and Policy Responses

By Jennifer S. Bard

Lawyers and law professors are very much part of the ongoing efforts to make policy in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Like everyone else involved, we face the particular challenge of being confronted daily with what seems to be an ever-changing flow of information about a newly emerged and rapidly mutating virus.

But what may help us better make or evaluate policy is a better understanding of some typical characteristics of viruses that make all of them very difficult to contain, rather than just the unique features of the one threatening us now.

Knowing more about the ways that viruses spread could help us avoid the pitfalls of declaring victory too early; rolling back existing infection control measures and ending up worse off than we have been at any stage of this pandemic.

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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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Box of Hydroxychloroquine Tablets

Human Subjects Research in Emergencies: The Texas Nursing Home “Study” (Part II)

By Jennifer S. Bard

This post is the second in a series about conducting human subjects research in emergencies. These posts are being written in response to a rapidly evolving situation and will reflect the state of knowledge at the time of writing.

In April 2020, Dr. Robin Armstrong, medical director of the Resort, a nursing home in Texas City, Texas, reported “signs of improvement” after he gave hydroxychloroquine, a drug approved by the FDA to treat malaria, to 39 of his nursing home patients who were diagnosed with COVID-19.

At about the same time, information was emerging that now represents the current understanding that hydoxychloroquine isn’t only ineffective in treating COVID-19, but also may cause serious harm to patients. Tensions were raised even higher by the seemingly inexplicable enthusiasm for this treatment by the President and some media outlets.

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Researcher works at a lab bench

Human Subjects Research in Emergencies: An Ethical and Legal Guide (Part I)

By Jennifer S. Bard

This post is the first in a series about conducting human subjects research in emergencies. These posts are being written in response to a rapidly evolving situation and will reflect the state of knowledge at the time of writing.

The world is facing a medical emergency in the form of the rapid spread of a new virus, COVID-19, for which there is no known effective treatment and no preventive vaccine.

Without minimizing the need for haste or the significance of the threat, it is still important to remain aware of the risks inherent in rushing to treat patients with anything that might work and simultaneously conducting the research necessary to identify safety and effective interventions.

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