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The Importance of Brutal Honesty in This Pandemic Winter

Public-health leaders made messaging mistakes as Covid-19 hit America. Biden has promised not to obscure the truth.

Mark Makela/Getty Images

In an address on Monday afternoon, Joe Biden offered a bleak preview of winter. “We need to be honest,” the president-elect said. “The next few weeks and months are going to be very tough ... maybe the toughest during this entire pandemic. I know it’s hard to hear, but it’s the truth.” He then invoked Franklin Roosevelt, pledging to talk to the American people “straight from the shoulder” like the thirty-second president did.

Biden was probably referring to the February 1942 “Fireside Chat” in which FDR, speaking by radio just 10 weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, admitted that “Japan has had an obvious initial advantage” in the Pacific theater. But there is an all-important difference between candor during wartime and truth-telling amid the worst pandemic in a century. No one expected FDR to reveal troop locations and battle plans.

In contrast, Biden and his public health team will not have the luxury of withholding information or packaging it to make reality seem more palatable. The pandemic is the ultimate No Spin Zone. This would be true at any point. But it is imperative after the lies, crazed predictions, willful denial of reality, and death-dealing incompetence of the Trump administration.

There is a tradition in public health of shading recommendations and analysis in a well-intentioned effort to shape public behavior and attitudes. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, recently acknowledged that he had done so in recent months when asked what level of herd immunity would be needed for America to return to normal. He had begun with an estimate of 60-70 percent—in line with World Health Organization predictions—but has been consistently raising the ante.

The shifting numbers partly reflect new scientific data about the vaccines and infection rates. But there is also another element that Fauci acknowledged in an interview with The New York Times. “When polls said only about half of all Americans would take a vaccine, I was saying herd immunity would take 70 to 75 percent,” Fauci recalled. “Then, when newer surveys said 60 percent or more would take it, I thought, ‘I can nudge this up a bit,’ so I went to 80, 85.”

Figuring out a precise percentage is, admittedly, not the most important question facing the nation or Fauci himself. As he was the first to admit, “We need to have some humility here. We really don’t know what the real number is.” We will only know that America has acquired herd immunity when the number of new infections starts dropping toward the vanishing point. But the most respected health-care official in the nation was also conceding that he had molded his public estimates based on the polls measuring anti-vaccine sentiment. In short, Fauci was not saying what he thought, but what he thought the American people could take.

I deeply admire Fauci and everyone else who fought for a rational response to Covid-19 while confronting a snake-oil president and his dangerously deluded sycophants. But because Donald Trump has so poisoned the waters of public trust, the incoming Biden team has to uphold the highest standards of veracity about vaccines and the virus—standards higher than top government public-health figures held themselves to at the beginning of the pandemic.

For all the right-wing wackos—including elected Republicans—who likened mask-wearing mandates to Nazism, it is worth recalling that authority figures like Surgeon General Jerome Adams, among others, initially dissuaded Americans from wearing masks—a tragic mistake in messaging that probably led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans.

As Lawrence Wright puts it in his compelling and authoritative account of “The Plague Year” in The New Yorker, “[The] final chance to contain the infection—masks—was the easiest, the cheapest, and perhaps the most effective. But the Administration and the country failed to meet the challenge.” The scientific consensus in early March, shared by Fauci, was that someone had to have active symptoms of Covid-19 to transmit the virus. But what Wright calls “groupthink”—assumptions about Covid-19 based on prior epidemics—contributed to the slowness to recognize that countries like Taiwan had contained the virus through universal mask wearing.

But there was far more to anti-mask sentiment than knowledge gaps about how the pandemic was spreading. Officials, including Fauci, were worried that any encouragement of mask wearing would lead to a run on hospital-grade N-95s, which were in short supply due to the ineptitude of the Trump administration.

As a result, the CDC didn’t endorse mask wearing until April 3. It was a head-spinning reversal that left many rational Americans confused and some—like me—angry. In mid-March, when New York City was fast becoming an epicenter of the virus, I had been in indoor settings without a mask because I had been led to believe that the only risk came from coughs and contaminated surfaces. As Robert Redfield, the director of the CDC, told The New Yorker, “When you change the message, the second message doesn’t always stick.”

Marco Rubio, hardly a north star of morality, attacked Fauci in a recent tweet:

Rubio’s onslaught against Fauci prompted fact-checks by the Tampa Bay Times and CNN that both found the Florida senator’s charges to be “false.” I will agree that Rubio’s words were extreme—and that Fauci in a March 8 appearance on 60 Minutes expressed a far more nuanced position on mask wearing than, say, Adams. But Fauci did declare during that interview, “There’s no reason to be walking around with a mask.”

My goal is not to castigate Fauci or to provide a testimonial to the enduring wisdom of Rubio. But there should be a general acknowledgement that there were moments when esteemed public health voices (and not just Trump and Vice President Mike Pence) offered wrongheaded recommendations during the pandemic. And every once in a while, liberals might pause to acknowledge some of the initial misinformation that helped spark the never-ending mask wars—and then follow Biden’s lead in talking straight from the shoulder about a pandemic that is far from over.