Jon GingerichJon Gingerich

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the restaurant.

The rising threat of the highly-contagious Delta variant, which is about 50 percent more contagious than the original coronavirus detected in China in late 2019—and potentially as contagious as chickenpox—is our greatest indication yet that we’re not out of the woods. Florida broke a new record for COVID-19 hospitalizations, reporting more than 10,200 patients. California just witnessed its single largest one-day jump in new cases this year. My guess is that soon, we’ll once again begin seeing renewed mask mandates, new rules for schools and businesses and a slew of updated local, state and federal guidelines. The great migration back to the office might not be so great. Honestly, I thought I was done writing COVID-19 editorials.

After 20 months, COVID-19 isn’t exactly a new crisis. So, it’s somewhat disappointing that the messaging from our health authorities hasn’t really improved in that time. From the very beginning, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases have done a poor job communicating both the facts about the coronavirus as well as what steps Americans should take to avoid getting it, leaving the public to constantly reassess a crisis we could never fully get our hands around. The CDC’s guidance was constantly changing, even contradicting itself, sometimes month to month: don’t wear a mask, wear a mask, the virus can be transmitted easily outdoors, the virus can’t be easily transmitted outdoors, vaccinated people can’t pass the virus to others, except when they can. Is it any wonder why science skepticism and vaccine hesitancy are so rampant?

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In May, the CDC made perhaps its most critical communications blunder when the agency stated that fully-vaccinated Americans could roam unmasked, indoors or outdoors. That guidance did less in the way of giving an incentive to the unvaccinated to get a shot than it gave them permission to simply act as though they were vaccinated, essentially establishing an honor system for anyone to wander indoors unmasked, potentially contributing to further spread in the advent of a new strain like Delta.

Internal CDC documents obtained by The Washington Post in late July seem to find the agency admitting these messaging missteps. Those documents, which shed new light on how dangerous the surging Delta variant really is—noting that breakthrough infections among vaccinated people are more common than previously thought, and that the vaccinated may potentially spread the strain at the same rate as the unvaccinated—highlight the agency’s myriad “communications challenges” in light of these breakthrough cases, particularly among a public now “convinced vaccines no longer work,” and also suggest a new communications strategy is needed if our health authorities want to win back public trust in the efficacy of vaccines, especially now that we know people that get a shot may still potentially contract COVID.

To be clear: the CDC’s intended messaging audience isn’t with the vaccinated. It’s with the legions of unvaccinated who are responsible for the overwhelming majority of new infections in the U.S. as well as almost all COVID-related deaths. (All things considered, breakthrough cases still appear to be rare, and the 6,587 known breakthrough cases of Americans who’ve been hospitalized or died from COVID among our 163 million fully-vaccinated suggests 99.99 percent of our fully-vaccinated haven’t had a breakthrough case resulting in hospitalization or death.) Granted, the CDC, in its infinite wisdom, also decided several months ago to stop collecting data on breakthrough cases, and given that many people are asymptomatic, who knows how many vaccinated Americans have truly contracted the virus?

Left unchecked, this is the kind of poor messaging environment that causes misinformation to thrive. At this juncture, it’s mission-critical that the Biden administration and our health authorities revamp their vaccination messaging efforts. The CDC, in particular, should be clear that it doesn’t always have all the answers, that its guidance is based simply on what evidence it has at the time. Above all, it must communicate that vaccines remain safe, effective and greatly reduce the risk of severe illness and death—and that they’re still the best chance we have at putting this crisis behind us.