The CDC Backtracked On Its New Guidelines. Here’s Why That Matters

Molly Longman
·4 mins read

On Friday, it seemed as though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had changed its official guidelines on COVID-19. The health agency said that aerosols (minuscule particles that are expelled when you cough, talk, or sneeze) were thought to be one of the main ways the virus spreads, and that the virus could be transmitted through the air. By Monday, though, the CDC had removed any language that indicated the novel coronavirus was “airborne,” except for a note that the previous update was “posted in error.”

“A draft version of proposed changes to these recommendations was posted in error to the agency’s official website,” Jason McDonald, a CDC spokesman, told CNN. “CDC is currently updating its recommendations regarding airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19). Once this process has been completed, the update language will be posted.”

For now, the CDC has returned to the language used before this weekend, that notes the main way the virus is passed is through inhaling respiratory droplets produced by an infected person. Aerosols are much smaller than respiratory droplets. “Droplets fall to earth quickly, but aerosols can travel on air currents potentially for hours,” according to a physician blog Penn Medicine posted in August. “Thus aerosolized viruses are likely to be much more infectious than viruses bound to respiratory droplets, and much more difficult to avoid.”

In the now-removed guidelines posted by the CDC on Friday, the health agency noted that airborne particles could likely travel distances beyond six feet. The post called out indoor environments without good ventilation as especially risky. And the CDC had added that air purifiers could be used as a new way to protect yourself indoors, CNN reports. That guidance is also no longer on their site.

The now-removed information was such a big deal that folks on Twitter were already suggesting changes in policy, particularly relating to indoor dining and guidance regarding indoor classrooms. People thought it was the kind of news that could prompt lawmakers and mayors across the country to change course on their regulations.

“We have been saying ‘wear a mask’ and ‘6 feet apart’ for months,” tweeted Abraar Karan, a physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and Harvard Medical School. “Cloth masks are not designed to block aerosols. And 6 feet apart may be insufficient, [particularly] indoors [with] poor ventilation.”

This snafu comes at a difficult time for the CDC. On Friday, The New York Times obtained damning emails that seem to illustrate that former members of the Trump administration may have attempted to silence scientists at health agency. Some on Twitter — including actress and activist Mia Farrow — are now asking whether the CDC’s facing political pressure.

The CDC has not yet responded to Refinery29’s request for comment.

Only time will tell whether the CDC re-issues guidelines that confirm that aerosols are a major way the virus is spread — or if they’ll stick with the current recommendations.

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard concerns about aerosols in regards to the virus, though. In July, the World Health Organization published a report that detailed how COVID-19 is transmitted, after 239 scientists sent a letter to the organization, urging it to be more up front about research showing the virus may spread through the air. “Most public health organizations, including the World Health Organization, do not recognize airborne transmission except for aerosol-generating procedures performed in healthcare settings,” the experts wrote. “Hand washing and social distancing are appropriate, but in our view, insufficient to provide protection from virus-carrying respiratory microdroplets released into the air by infected people.” The WHO’s report noted that some outbreaks in crowded, indoor spaces suggested aerosol transmission as well as droplet transmission.

Whatever the reason for the CDC’s reversal, knowing the truth about whether the virus is airborne is critical. If we don’t know exactly how COVID-19 spreads, we won’t take the appropriate actions to protect ourselves and our communities. For now, the best course of action is to continue wearing your face mask, avoiding crowded areas, self-quarantining if you feel at all sick (even if you suspect you don’t have the virus), and, to be on the safe side, being wary about indoor get-togethers.

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