Why America is scared and confused: Even the experts are getting it wrong

John Auerbach, who leads the nonpartisan organization Trust for America’s Health, said the public health officials generally were clear about what they knew and what they didn’t. But that wasn’t always the case with elected officials who “sometimes made definitive statements that turn out to not be the case.”

The CDC’s own missteps on testing hurt its standing within President Donald Trump’s circle. And the testing delays also hampered the public health response, as the experts did not have a handle on how far or how fast the virus was spreading.

The CDC also was not always on message.

For instance when the White House two weeks ago announced its social distancing campaign and urged people not to gather in groups greater than 10, the CDC still had on its website the prior day’s recommendation to avoid groups under 50.

Just this week, CDC Director Robert Redfield granted a rare local radio interview stressing how people with no symptoms could still infect someone else. Earlier in the epidemic, scientists didn’t have conclusive evidence of asymptomatic transmission and they didn’t stress it as a risk.

That lack of visibility — the public’s inability to hear directly from the agency about what it’s learning — undermines the trust that’s essential in a crisis, said former CDC acting Director Richard Besser, who now runs the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

“Trust is the critical factor,” Besser said. “You develop trust by being transparent, by explaining on a daily basis what you do know, don’t know and what you are doing to get more information.”

Officials are still all over the place on whether the public should wear masks. And if they do change the recommendations and urge people to wear them, they’ll have to first, explain to the public that it’s more about preventing people from spreading the virus than catching it; second, that it doesn’t replace social distancing; and third — contrary to what’s appearing on social media — the earlier advice was based on the best science available then, not because the masks were in short supply.