It goes without saying that the global response, and especially the domestic response, to COVID-19 was and is disastrous. Correctly assigning blame for the myriad failures that transpired would take more time and effort than anyone reasonably has. One undisputed aspect of the spread, however, was incredibly misguided public health information during the beginning of the COVID pandemic. These failures included methods of transmission and ventilation, to the importance of superspreader events, to the origins of the pandemic itself, not to mention the obvious failure of masks. Throughout the spring and summer, messaging around “flattening the curve” and “social distancing” obscured both the probable length of the pandemic and transmission vector of SARS-CoV-2. I distinctly remember the tenor of shame that colored news reports picturing thousands of people on beaches– conveniently overlooking both the telephoto zoom and the relative safety of the outdoors.
Public health is a science, and the scientific process necessarily takes time. As a random person with no particular insight into the intricacies of viral epidemiology, I can claim no advance knowledge of these failures. But the interesting nature of many of these failures is that they were embedded into the public and institutional consciousness and never widely revisited. Even when public health recommendations evolved, that evolution never percolated to businesses and people.
How can public health experts begin to push these other measures to the same level of success that mask-wearing has achieved? Mask-wearing also suffered from wrongheaded messaging early in the pandemic but has since become the most universal mitigation measure towards the spread of the virus. To rectify this initial failure, progress came from both public messaging and resources about masks, media acknowledgement of masks’ importance, and regulation to require masks in many places. These same methods have not progressed for other facets of the pandemic.
Months ago, important thinkers were warning about how sanitation theater imparted a false sense of safety to inherently unsafe activities. And yet, the myth of fomite transmission persists, as Derek Thompson in The Atlantic wrote *this morning*:
Since last spring, the CDC has expanded its guidance to clarify that the coronavirus “spreads less commonly through contact with contaminated surfaces.” In the past month, the leading scientific journal Nature published both a long analysis and a sharp editorial reiterating Goldman’s thesis. “A year into the pandemic, the evidence is now clear,” the editorial begins. “Catching the virus from surfaces—although plausible—seems to be rare.”
And yet, when I got on the airplane to go back to school just a week ago, Delta boasted about how they cleaned every seat very well between flights. We were handed hand sanitizer when we walked on to the plane, and then again when we walked off of it.
Zeynep Tufekci, a sociology professor and Atlantic contributor, has been one of the leading advocates for aggressive revision of CDC guidelines to prioritize aerosolized transmission and the variety of public health guidelines that prioritizing airborne transmission would change. In a recent Twitter thread, she captured some of the frustration that the prevailing wisdom of “safe COVID practices” creates.
This, after masks, is the biggest failure—both scientific and communication—of the pandemic in Western nations: the airborne nature of the pathogen. CDC changed this guidance last October. Japan and many other nations had it right on *February* of 2020.
It was only in December of 2020 the WHO guidelines got updated to wear masks indoors at all times—before they only said masks only if one couldn’t be separated by three feet. These things matter so much because billions of people are live and work according to these guidelines.
I wrote about ventilation last July and to this day, I get contacted by desperate people who work in places that disinfect at length but don’t have extensive ventilation mitigations, and consider six feet to as be-all-end-all. When they object, they’re told that’s the guidelines.
The situation above represents two distinct failures:
The first failure was the institutional information being both wrong and slow to admit they were wrong. This failure (often driven by the craven politics of the Trump Administration) is the reason why for months, the most accurate source of information as for how to protect yourself from an airborne pathogen came in the form of a Google Doc, made by professors and scientists fed up with an obstinate public health ecosystem.
The second failure is the one we are living now: the way that updated scientific information has failed to affect the behavior and decisions of individuals and businesses. This failure is not new and not limited to epidemiology. It is a battle that has played out in the arenas of tobacco, climate change, and herbicides. To be sure, the power of ingrained thinking and the politicization of everything contributes to this phenomenon. The confounding variable in this particular scenario is that there is no Big Tobacco or Big Oil or Monsanto to lobby humans to prolong this pandemic. Instead, recognizing the importance of aerosolized transmission would actually mean less time-consuming and convoluted hygiene processes that don’t really accomplish anything. Instead, we are left with prevailing wisdom that results in absurdities like this: