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US Health Agency Undermines Equity in Covid-19 Policy

New CDC Guidelines Drop Key Protections for Marginalized Groups, Undermine Trust

The offices of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, April 19, 2022. © AP Photo/Ron Harris, File

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has rolled out new Covid-19 guidelines that undermine the right to health in the United States and send a worrying signal that a leading health authority will no longer consider protecting marginalized groups from illness and death.

The new CDC policy removes its “test to stay” recommendation for schools – which protects students during in-person learning – and weakens its masking, isolation, and screening recommendations. The shift comes as 98 percent of the US meets the agency’s highest threshold for community transmission of the virus that causes Covid-19, and Black, Native American, and Latinx populations continue to experience higher rates of infection, hospitalization, and death from Covid-19 compared to white people. All this is happening just as CDC director Rochelle Walensky is calling for a reorganization of the agency due to its “confusing and overwhelming” Covid-19 pandemic response. Perhaps Walensky’s May 2021 declaration that “Your health is in your hands,” was a harbinger of things to come.  

Throughout 2022, the CDC has changed the parameters of its Covid-19 cautions while rolling back protections – all while indicating awareness of suffering their choices were allowing. For example, in March the agency rolled back recommendations about masks, putting millions of immune-compromised people at increased risk of contracting Covid-19 if they or their cohabitors leave home to work, attend school, shop, or otherwise visit indoor public spaces.

But despite Walensky’s new calls for improving accountability at the agency, the CDC’s guidelines do not deliver equitable protections for the marginalized groups who continue to be heavily impacted by Covid-19. Instead, the CDC has doubled down on emphasizing individual responsibility and biomedical interventions. This will facilitate the virus’s unnecessary spread and harm, while policies focused on combining vaccination and therapeutics with structural changes – such as improving access to affordable health care for all – could better prevent widespread illness and spikes in deaths that disproportionately impact particular groups.

Ignoring the pandemic is not the same thing as ending it. More than 200,000 people have died of Covid-19 in the US in 2022.

If failed public health responses can be reduced to cycles of panic and neglect, the US government has adopted neglect. This policy choice will have deadly consequences, and amounts to a great giving up on marginalized groups, on immune-compromised people, and on the hope that the public should place their trust in public health agencies.

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