CDC botched mask guidance

Last week’s announcement on mask-wearing by the CDC led to more confusion than clarification, and underlined the fact that health issues will be on every PR person’s radar for the foreseeable future.

Mask-wearing guidance issued by the CDC on May 13 led to misinterpretation and misunderstanding.
Mask-wearing guidance issued by the CDC on May 13 led to misinterpretation and misunderstanding.

In the early days of the pandemic, I remember IPG Dxtra CEO Andy Polansky telling me that pretty much all communication will be filtered through a public health lens from now on – and how right he was.

I’ve reused his line many times since then – thanks Andy! – and it’s never been more true than over the past 10 days since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released new guidance on mask-wearing.

Last Thursday afternoon, somewhat out of the blue, the CDC proclaimed through all its media channels that, if you’re fully vaccinated, you do not need to wear a mask – indoors or outdoors, in most settings.

“We’ve gotten this far,” noted the PSA. “Whether you choose to get vaccinated or wear a mask, please protect yourself until we get to the finish line.”

Curiously, the image used on Twitter and other social media featured the words “fully vaccinated people” in a much smaller font than the headline messages that you “can stop” (largest font) “wearing masks” (large font).

Let’s be clear, the good weather is here, summer is coming, people have been locked down for 15 months, the vaccines are readily available to large swathes of the population and citizens are desperate to get out there and have some semblance of normality back in their lives.

However, we’re also seeing the havoc still be wreaked by COVID-19 in places like India, where a new particularly contagious strain of the virus has brought the country to its knees. WCNC in South Carolina yesterday reported cases of the Indian variant appearing locally and warned of a possible spike in coronavirus infections around Memorial Day holiday.

So we’re by no means out of the woods yet in the U.S. This is a global disease and one that will continue to replicate around the planet, especially to heavily populated parts of the world.

In parts of the country, most people stopped wearing masks some time ago, indoors and outside. But in major urban areas that were hit really hard by the pandemic, such as New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles, a lot of caution was being exercised and mask-wearing was still pretty ubiquitous.

Firstly, this CDC guidance is open to very easy abuse. How can you police whether or not someone has been vaccinated? It’s not as though people are going to wear a lanyard around their neck with their vaccine documentation embedded in it.

Secondly, this confusing piece of CDC messaging seemed to empower many to think all bets were now off and masks were no longer needed, when in fact those who are unvaccinated need to continue wearing masks to avoid putting themselves and others at risk.

Come Friday morning it led to exchanges like this in coffee shops, subsequently relayed on social media:

“This morning at Dunkin’ Donuts, a man who was not wearing a mask came in to get a coffee. The employee nicely told him he needed to be wearing a mask, and he went off about how the CDC says he doesn’t have to wear a mask anymore if he’s vaccinated. The employees said he still needed to wear one in the store, he pushed back and was generally unpleasant.

“I wanted to step in with ‘CDC recommendations are only recommendations that don’t supersede local regulations,’ but the man frightened me and I was scared of getting involved. So … yeah … thanks, CDC.”

I’m sure we’ve all witnessed or been involved in similar tense situations around the topic of masks and mask guilt over the past year. It’s become political. And everyone has a strong view on it.

And, as the post above points out, CDC guidelines don’t overwrite state and local laws, workplaces and businesses.

That’s why the communication around guidance on mask-wearing has to be crystal clear and not open to distortion, which clearly hasn’t been the case after the CDC announcement.

Yesterday, even the government’s coronavirus czar, Dr. Anthony Fauci, admitted to Axios that the public is misunderstanding the CDC’s announcement.

“People are misinterpreting, thinking this is a removal of a mask mandate for everyone. It’s not,” he said. “It’s an assurance to those who are vaccinated that they can feel safe, be they outdoors or indoors.”

Fauci explained that the CDC didn’t tell unvaccinated people they don’t need to wear masks but actually said those who are vaccinated will not get infected indoors or outdoors.

“People either read them quickly, or listen and hear half of it. They are feeling that we’re saying: ‘You don’t need the mask anymore.’ That’s not what the CDC said.”

It may not have been what the CDC said – but it was certainly how the guidance was being interpreted in some quarters. Maybe the largest font should have been reserved for the “fully vaccinated people” part of the message.

On Monday, PRWeek surveyed 25 retailers to see how they were communicating around mask-wearing in their stores.

Responses ranged from Walmart/Sam’s Club, where visitors were told, “vaccinated customers and members are welcome to shop without a mask, and we will continue to request that non-vaccinated customers and members wear face coverings in our stores and clubs,” to Macy’s, which is “requiring all customers to wear a facial covering while shopping in our stores to respect their fellow shoppers and the colleagues that serve them.”

“JCPenney got straight to the point: "Masks are required in store.” Whereas CVS says “customers who are fully vaccinated are no longer required to wear face coverings inside of our stores, unless it is mandated by state or local regulations.”

Starbucks states facial coverings “will be optional for vaccinated customers beginning Monday, May 17, unless local regulations require them by law.” Apple says “face masks will be required for all of our teams and customers while visiting an Apple Store, and we will provide them to customers who don’t bring their own.”

And the CDC is still advising that masks should be worn on transport systems including planes, trains, buses and subways. This is certainly being adhered to in New York City.

In other words, there is no general rule here and, whether we wear a mask or not, we all need to carry one with us in case we visit places where mask-wearing is required.

The CDC needs to keep up the pressure on this, step up its game and communicate clearly and succinctly.

Because, now and moving forward - as Andy Polansky noted - every communications strategy, activation, campaign and planning scenario has to be filtered through the lens of health, especially public health.

That is the new reality for all brands, corporations and PR agencies.

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