With the Federal Health Megaphone Silent, States Struggle With a Shifting Pandemic

In North Carolina, where the caseload has shot up to nearly 50,000 after the state’s stay-at-home order expired at the end of May, health officials conduct two or three briefings as week, often with Governor Cooper, a Democrat, in attendance. Privately, they have lamented the lack of clear, regularly updated guidance on communications from the C.D.C. on how to talk to the public about the coronavirus threat, according to a senior state official who did not want to be quoted criticizing the Trump administration.

Dr. Mandy Cohen, North Carolina’s health secretary, has been consulting with her counterparts from other states, as well as academics and Dr. Tom Frieden, a former C.D.C. director whose health advocacy group, Resolve to Save Lives, published a “playbook” on Tuesday to help states with their contact-tracing efforts.

In past public health crises, when the White House quit updating the public, the C.D.C. continued on its own. Tom Skinner, a spokesman for the agency, said in an email on Wednesday that the “C.D.C. has done a few recent briefings and is planning to do more in the future.” He said the agency had “produced vast amounts of information on Covid-19 for intended use by state and local health officials when communicating to the public.”

But written guidance to state officials is no substitute for a live human being talking directly to members of the public on a regular basis, health experts say. Direct communications instill public trust in government health officials — even when those officials make mistakes — because they can engage in a running conversation with the public, explaining that as the science changes, their recommendations may change as well, public health experts say.

“The American public is remarkably forgiving of mistakes when you’re upfront: ‘Here’s why I’m making this judgment now, and things are changing,’” said Dr. Ezekiel J. Emanuel, a professor of bioethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania.

Some public health scientists and academics are talking about filling the void left by Washington and holding their own coronavirus briefings.


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