WASHINGTON - As Dr. Mark Wilson prepared to release advice in July that middle schools and high schools in Birmingham, Alabama, should not open for in-person learning this fall, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its position and issued the opposite recommendation.
Wilson, chief health officer for Birmingham and the surrounding county, stuck to his at-home schooling decision, but now without support from what had long been regarded as the nation's most esteemed public health authority.
Not only that, he said some of the vexed parents even cited the CDC in attacking his stand. It felt like the limb he was out on had been sawed off at the trunk.
"That guidance gave me one of the worst weeks of my life," Wilson recalled in an interview with Stateline.
The agency's revised advice came on the heels of President Donald Trump's vigorous call for a full, face-to-face school reopening. But it conflicted with what Wilson and other public health officials knew were disturbing results from a credible South Korean study, which, contrary to popular belief, found that older children were a greater risk for transmitting the virus than younger children. That made reopening middle and high schools more problematic.
Since the pandemic began, a string of messages from the Trump administration, many lacking scientific evidence, have confounded the work of state and local public health authorities who have the already challenging job of convincing people to abide by restrictions that many find not only onerous but also economically punishing.
By early June, more than two dozen public health officials had resigned or been fired - some burned out, others vehemently attacked by elected officials, the public or both. Since then, the list of casualties has expanded to more than 50.
Now, as Election Day approaches, conflicting public health recommendations from the CDC along with less transparency with and communication to local public health officials is causing a growing number of them to ignore the agency and follow their own judgments.
As a consequence, the nation's coronavirus public health guidelines vary widely across states. And health officials say conflicting recommendations from different public health agencies confuse the public and result in many ignoring guidance that could save their lives.
"The CDC is our national messenger on this topic and when they're not strong, it adds to the already full plate of local health officials as they try to navigate through the pandemic," said Adriane Casalotti, chief of government and public affairs at the National Association of County and City Health Officials.