The U.S. is in a sixth COVID wave—but it doesn’t look like it on a new CDC map

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control's color-coded map of COVID "community levels" shows most of the U.S. covered in a soothing shade of light green, symbolizing "low" transmission levels, as of May 19.

But another CDC map showing "community transmission" as of May 19 shows most of the country enveloped in red, symbolizing "high" transmission.

Which is reality when it comes to the state of COVID in the U.S.—a safe, soothing sea of teal, or a perilous, fiery ruby inferno?

"This should make you angry," Dr. Jonathan Reiner—a professor of medicine and surgery at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, and CNN medical analyst—tweeted last week, citing a CDC tweet featuring the cool-color map of "community levels."

"The U.S. is in the midst of a real COVID surge ... yet the @CDCgov tweets this," he said. "Nothing to see here. All is well. Everything is green."

He also referred to the discrepancy as "gaslighting," adding, "Tell me why I'm wrong about this."

The debate has set the Twitterverse ablaze, with one Twitter user sharing a before/after meme of a cartoon dog roasting in yellow flames, then (presumably) relaxing in green flames—a dig at the CDC's new color scheme.

Another individual tweeted, "Today I learned that the Walgreens COVID map is more helpful than the CDC's."

The U.S. is experiencing a sixth wave of COVID, with over 90,000 confirmed new cases a day and a 20% increase in hospitalizations over the past two weeks. The actual number of new cases per day likely sits at a half million or more, "far greater than any of the U.S. prior waves, except Omicron," writes Dr. Eric Topol, the executive vice president of Scripps Research and a professor of molecular medicine, in a recent blog post on the maps.

"Meanwhile, the CDC propagates delusional thinking that community levels are very low while the real and important data convey that transmission is very high throughout most of the country. Not only does this further beget cases by instilling false confidence, but it is conveniently feeding the myth that the pandemic is over—precisely what everyone wants to believe."

What changed?

Things weren't always this way when it came to the CDC's visually represented data. Millions of Americans "were instantly transported to a green zone in late February, when the agency unveiled its new metrics and map," NPR recently reported.

The public health agency didn't merely swap color palettes on its community levels map—it swapped data sets. Under its new guidance, now based on hospital capacity, anyone living in a green or yellow county can leave their masks at home when stepping out. Prior to February, however, community levels were based on the amount of virus spread and the percent of COVID tests returning positive, according to NPR.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control didn't respond to Fortune's request for comment on the map Saturday, including questions about why the data behind the map, and the colors of it, had changed, and the potential implications for public health.

The CDC switched the map's data source "to a lagging indicator and completely rescaled the colors to make the map very difficult for the public to use, in terms of actually gauging their risk," said Arijit Chakravarty, a COVID researcher and CEO of Fractal Therapeutics.

"Functionally, the new map is basically only telling me it looks like there's still room in the hospitals," he said.

Some, like Chakravarty and Stanford professor Josh Salmon, are worried about the impact the CDC's revised guidance could have on adverse outcomes like Long COVID and death, as individuals might not be advised to mask until it's too late.

According to Salmon, states that fall under the CDC's category of "high"—the level at which the agency finally recommends masking indoors—seem to experience around 1,000 or more COVID deaths a day.

"By the time the indicator flashes, it's too late to prevent most of those," he tweeted in March. "... As a level of mortality the White House and CDC are willing to accept before calling for more public health protection, this is heartbreaking."

"It would be great, if you are normalizing a different death toll, to be transparent about that," Chakravarty said. "If we have suddenly decided that hundreds of thousands of death a year from COVID is business as usual, I don't know if the public got the memo."

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