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Coronavirus Briefing: What Happened Today

todayAugust 24, 2021 2

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Sometimes it seems as if scientific understanding of the coronavirus changes by the hour.

The virus was thought to spread only by close contact or on contaminated surfaces, then it turned out to be airborne. Americans don’t need to wear masks. Wait, they do. Booster shots may not be necessary, at least not for a long time — until they are strongly recommended.

We’re living with science as it unfolds in real time, our colleague Apoorva Mandavilli reported this week. The process has always been fluid and unpredictable. But rarely has it moved at this speed, and rarely has it been so crucial to pay close attention.

For some frustrated Americans, public health officials have seemed at times to be flip-flopping — or even to be intentionally misleading the country.

Consider mask guidance from the C.D.C. In the early weeks and months of the pandemic, officials said that masks were unnecessary for the general public, in part to preserve supplies for frontline workers, as the Times Opinion columnist Zeynep Tufekci noted. Months later, the agency reversed its advice.

Then, in May 2020, the agency said that vaccinated people could ditch their masks, but did not sufficiently emphasize that masks might be needed again. Now, with a new surge in infections, they are.

One central problem, Apoorva said, is the relatively low level of scientific literacy in the U.S. “We also don’t really talk about health as a public good, as a community goal,” she added. “It’s not like deciding to exercise or deciding to eat well, which are very individual activities. Infectious disease is, by its definition, something that connects people.”

“This wouldn’t be happening if public health authorities had done a good job of educating the public from the start,” she said. “You can’t really come into a pandemic not ever having talked about these things before and expect people to understand everything and get on board.”

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todayAugust 24, 2021