The COVID-19 messaging failures keep coming

The CNN reporting on Trump administration officials and the internal arguments over the COVID-19 response has me thinking about what could have been and what should have been. I’ve been trying to avoid looking back. I think the Trump presidency was awful in many ways. And while I see the value in learning from mistakes, his presidency seems, to me, so unique that I’m cautiously optimistic that his mistakes aren’t the kind that any current or future president will make, so I’m not sure what we gain, in this case, from dwelling in the past. But when it comes to COVID-19, some of the mistakes keep getting made, and that’s really unfortunate.

From the beginning, I felt that the worst thing that our leaders did was try to minimize the potential impact of the pandemic. From Trump saying that it will go away, when we now know that he didn’t think it would go away and he knew it was worse than he was telling us. We can fairly debate what made Bob Woodward keep this to himself, and we can also fairly debate when it’s in our best interest for the government to lie to us (as unpleasant as that sounds). But when the government lies to us for noble purposes, and it doesn’t achieve the noble purpose, it makes things so much worse. Not only because the goal wasn’t achieved, but because it erodes trust in the future.

But Trump and his administration aren’t the only ones worthy of criticism here, and some of the bad messaging continues today in the Biden administration. From where I sit, the worst of this all is about where risks lie and what our mitigation strategies are intended to achieve. From social distancing to masks and now to vaccines, the messaging has been wrong from the start.

The vaccine messaging, from Biden to Cuomo and everywhere else, has missed the mark. This doesn’t seem to be on purpose, and doesn’t seem to be the kind of lies that the Trump administration told us (which, in fairness, were intended to prevent panic, and preventing panic is a good thing for the government to do). These do not seem to be lies, but seem to be a fundamental misunderstanding by the decision-makers. Sure, it sounds like a good idea to prioritize vaccinations for those who are at highest risk for severe outcomes from a COVID-19 infection (e.g., the elderly and those with conditions that elevate risk). But that’s a real messaging problem. Without saying it out loud, the government is sending the message that it’s MORE important to protect those who are most likely to die. Yes, that sounds like the right thing, but the converse of that is that it’s LESS important to vaccinate those who are less likely to die. It gives people comfort to say that they’re not worried about getting sick, so there’s no reason for them to go out of their way to get the vaccine. This is just wrong.

We’re in a race right now. We’re in a race between a mutating virus that is potentially more dangerous (and able to infect people who were immune to other forms of the virus) and a global population that is immune. If the global population is immune before the virus can mutate in a way that makes it unrecognized by our immune systems (because we’ve had COVID or a vaccination), then the virus cannot mutate. If, however, the virus wins this race, and a new mutation takes hold that can infect and harm those who have already been infected or vaccinated, then all the vaccine efforts are meaningless and we’re off to the races again. By making it clear to the public, through actions and words, that some people don’t really need the vaccine, we’re risking losing that race.

This was the same basic problem that I had with the mask messaging. The resistance to mask-wearing became a symbol of fearlessness and machismo. “I’m not afraid, I don’t need a mask.” But mask wearing was always more about preventing the wearer from infecting others than it was about protecting the wearer. Sure, risk isn’t binary and if you prevent virus particles from getting into your mouth and nose, you’re less likely to contract the virus, but your eyes are still exposed. Your hands are still exposed and will eventually touch your mouth, nose, or eyes. But while sources of bringing the virus into you are still available, if you have a mask on, you’ve covered the main route by which you shed virus into the world. With a virus like this, which is capable of spread by people who have no idea they even have it, it’s the prevention of shedding virus into the world that matters much more than protecting yourself from exposure.

But that message was seldom part of the conversation. Maybe that was on purpose. Maybe our society is so selfish that asking people to wear masks so they won’t harm others would never have gotten any mileage. It sure seems like too much to ask many around us to get a shot to help us win this race. As long as they aren’t at risk, they don’t seem to care.

I’d like to think that it’s a failure of messaging, not awful selfishness, but I’m having trouble there. I hope I’m not becoming a total misanthrope, but it’s getting harder and harder. Maybe I’m just getting older and should spend my days telling kids to stay off my lawn. I suspect I’ll still feel compelled to add “please” while doing so. I hope.

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