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On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reversed a guideline that was posted “in error” on Friday. The guideline stated that COVID-19 could be transferred through droplets in the air that can “travel distances beyond 6 feet.” Though public-health experts are now confident that such airborne transmission can occur, the CDC removed this language from its website, claiming it was a “draft version” that should not have been published.
“There is growing evidence that droplets and airborne particles can remain suspended in the air and be breathed in by others, and travel distances beyond 6 feet (for example, during choir practice, in restaurants, or in fitness classes),” the Friday update said. If adhered to, such a statement would have a tremendous impact on business and school reopenings across the country. The document added that “in general, indoor environments without good ventilation increase” the risk of airborne transmission. Previously, the agency had only acknowledged that COVID-19 is transmitted between people in close contact through large droplets.
The abrupt guideline change, first posted without an announcement on Friday, comes in the immediate wake of a CDC decision to walk back a controversial recommendation suggesting that people who had come into close contact with someone who was infected with COVID-19 would not need to get tested if they were asymptomatic — a baffling public-health instruction considering that some people who contract the virus experience no symptoms, while others do not begin to experience symptoms until days after transmission. Throughout the pandemic, pressured by the current administration to release politically friendly information and frustrated by the challenges of a novel virus, the CDC has reversed an alarming number of recommendations.
Both the reversals have raised concerns that the Trump administration is politicizing public-health guidelines in the midst of a pandemic which has killed 200,000 Americans. The CDC reversed the testing guidance on Friday, the day after a New York Times report revealed that the recommendation had not been reviewed or approved by CDC scientists or published by the agency itself, but by political appointees within the Trump administration. “That was a doc that came from the top down, from the H.H.S. and the [White House coronavirus] task force,” a federal official with knowledge of the matter told the Times. “That policy does not reflect what many people at the C.D.C. feel should be the policy.” Regarding the reversal on aerosol transmission, Joseph Allen, a health scientist and director of Harvard University’s Healthy Buildings program, told The Wall Street Journal that to acknowledge the scientific consensus in the guideline only “to backtrack instantly is devastating.”