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NY Times writer calls out CDC for ‘misleading’ and deceptive stat on outdoor COVID risk

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A writer for the New York Times is disputing a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistic regarding the likelihood of becoming infected with COVID-19 while outdoors, calling it “misleading.”

In Tuesday’s “Morning Newsletter,” David Leonhardt took umbrage at the CDC’s claim that the risk of contracting the virus while outdoors is around 10 percent, a statistic he believes is much lower.

“It appears to be based partly on a misclassification of some Covid transmission that actually took place in enclosed spaces,” Leonhardt writes. “An even bigger issue is the extreme caution of C.D.C. officials, who picked a benchmark — 10 percent — so high that nobody could reasonably dispute it.”

Leonhardt went on to quote Dr. Muge Cevik, a virologist at the University of St. Andrews who said that the CDC benchmark “seems to be a huge exaggeration.”

He went on to say that “multiple epidemiologists” have told him that outdoor infection rates are much closer to 1 percent and could even dip below one-tenth of one percent.

“The rare outdoor transmission that has happened almost all seems to have involved crowded places or close conversation,” Leonhardt wrote.

“Saying that less than 10 percent of Covid transmission occurs outdoors is akin to saying that sharks attack fewer than 20,000 swimmers a year. (The actual worldwide number is around 150.) It’s both true and deceiving,” he added.

The Times writer when on to say that he isn’t simply engaging in a “match gotcha issue” to point out that the CDC appears to be having difficulty crafty accurate messaging on the outdoor issue and others as well regarding COVID-19, “leaving many people confused about what’s truly risky.”

Saying that the nation’s foremost health agency was playing “a high priority on caution,” Leonhardt added that “Americans are bewildered” by a “long list of recommendations” the CDC has publicized over the course of the pandemic. He then cited Zeynep Tufekci of the University of North Carolina, who wrote in The Atlantic that the CDC’s lengthy guidance is “simultaneously too timid and too complicated.”

Others have also challenged the CDC’s guidelines. During a late April monologue, Fox News’s Tucker Carlson challenged outdoor mask mandates, saying there is no evidence indicating that Americans are at grave risk of contracting the virus outdoors.

A few days earlier, Carlson noted, The New York Times reported that there were “few if any” cases of outdoor coronavirus transmission. He then played a clip of White House chief medical adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci, during an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, saying that “it’s pretty common sense now that outdoor risk is really, really quite low, particularly,” especially for Americans who have been vaccinated.

“We’ve known this for a long time. We’ve known it for certain for almost a year, since that day last June when America’s so-called public health community united as one to remind us that corona restrictions don’t apply to BLM rioters,” Carlson said.

Also in late April, the CDC dropped its prior recommendation that Americans should mask up outdoors, saying that fully vaccinated people can go without wearing one — unless they’re in a larger crowd.

But as Leonhardt noted, the CDC is continuing “to treat outdoor transmission as a major risk.” He said the agency notes that unvaccinated people ought to be masking up in most settings while outside and that summer camps ought to require kids to wear masks “at all times” with the exception of some activities such as swimming.

“These recommendations would be more grounded in science if anywhere close to 10 percent of Covid transmission were occurring outdoors. But it is not. There is not a single documented Covid infection anywhere in the world from casual outdoor interactions, such as walking past someone on a street or eating at a nearby table,” Leonhardt concluded.

Jon Dougherty

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