President-elect Joe Biden says he’s going to ask Americans to cover their faces in public for the first 100 days of his presidency. Urging people to wear masks is entirely reasonable. It’s exactly what people should do to minimize coronavirus infections as vaccination proceeds. Yet after almost a year with no such common-sense guidance from the White House, Biden’s modest request seems almost shocking — a sad commentary on the lack of leadership to this point.
Guiding America toward prudence in coping with COVID-19 is going to be no less important as vaccines become more widely available.
People need clear information and guidance about the vaccines’ safety and potential side effects, so that most people are willing to get the shots. If fewer than four out of five are vaccinated, it may not be enough to stem the coronavirus’s spread. Encouragingly, resistance to COVID-19 vaccines has been waning since news of their extraordinary effectiveness first broke. The share of Americans who say they would accept a vaccine that was free and certified as safe has risen to 71%, from 63% in September, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey.
As inoculations are carried out, there’ll be reports of side effects. This is inevitable. People often feel pain and swelling in their arms after getting the shot. Fever, chills, headache and fatigue are common. And a handful of people in the U.K. and in Alaska have suffered allergic reactions. (Health officials recommend that people be monitored for allergy symptoms for 15 minutes after getting their shots.) The clinical trials suggest that nearly one in six people may not feel up to working on the days they get their shots. The public needs to be told what to expect — and to understand these reactions aren’t dangerous and go away quickly.
Biden’s administration should therefore move promptly to restore the Centers for Disease Control’s leadership in pandemic response. Regular public briefings on all the pandemic trends — the number of people infected and hospitalized, the number of deaths, the number of people vaccinated, the percentage experiencing side effects, any new side effects that might arise, and whether mutations in the virus like the one now reported in the U.K. are making it more or less transmissible or dangerous — can provide a clear account of progress against COVID-19. CDC experts can answer the public’s questions and address anxieties.
This won’t persuade all Americans to mask up, keep their distance and so on. These behaviors have become absurdly politicized. This month, as just one illustration, the mayor of Dodge City, Kansas, was driven from office by death threats after America learned about the city commission’s vote to require mask-wearing indoors.
The backlash against simple and effective public-health measures has been perhaps the biggest and most glaring weakness in the U.S. COVID-19 response. American scientists have helped create near-miraculous vaccines in record time. American doctors have helped hone the medical response to COVID-19, keeping more and more patients alive. But the U.S. does poorly when it comes to guiding behavior. Divided by politics, too many Americans see their freedom to ignore simple public-health advice not just as a right but almost as an obligation.
The faster such intransigence fades in the months ahead, the faster the country can use vaccinations to achieve herd immunity. Once Biden takes office, the White House will at least be trying to unite and not divide the country. It’s about time — and with luck this will make a big difference in stamping out the pandemic.
The Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.
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