At an April 27 press briefing, Director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Dr. Rochelle Walensky said, “Less than 10 percent of documented transmission, in many studies, have occurred outdoors.” The CDC has now come under fire by the media for allegedly inflating the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) statistic and providing confusing guidance.
In a recent article published in The New York Times (NYT), Pulitzer Prize for Commentary winner David Leonhardt said that the CDC data is “almost certainly misleading,” and originates from academic research that collected COVID-19 data from construction sites in Singapore. Many of the outdoor transmission events were likely misclassified and “actually took place in enclosed spaces.”
In one study, 4 out of 103 incidents of transmission were classified as having occurred outdoors, with all four from Singapore construction sites. In another study, even when adopting a broad definition of outdoor transmission with only “mass accommodation and residential facilities” regarded as indoor settings, only less than one percent of cases, or 95 out of 10,926 cases, were categorized as outdoors. All 95 instances were from Singapore construction sites.
The data from Singapore was sourced from a government database that does not categorize COVID-19 incidents at construction sites as outdoor transmission. Yap Wei Qiang, a spokesman for the Ministry of Health in Singapore, told The New York Times that “It could have been workplace transmission where it happens outdoors at the site, or it could also have happened indoors within the construction site.”
In contrast, the academic researchers classified construction site incidents as outdoor transmission due to the fact that they “deemed almost any setting that was a mix of outdoors and indoors to be outdoors,” according to the NYT article.
After consulting with multiple epidemiologists, Leonhardt stated that the actual rate of outdoor transmission “seems to be below 1 percent,” or even less than 0.1 percent. An official from the CDC told Leonhardt that the 10 percent figure is a “conservative estimate from a recent systematic review of peer-reviewed papers.”
‘Conflicting guidance’ by the CDC
At a Senate Health Committee hearing titled “An Update from Federal Officials on Efforts to Combat COVID-19,” Republican Senator Susan Collins said that the CDC was providing “conflicting, confusing guidance” related to the pandemic that has undermined public confidence and contradicted scientific guidance offered by several experts.
Collins provided three examples to support her case, which included the NYT article alleging that the 10 percent outdoor transmission number quoted by CDC was highly inflated. “Dr. Walensky, I used to have the utmost respect for the guidance from the CDC. I always considered the CDC to be the gold standard. I don’t anymore,” she said at the hearing.
Collins pointed out that unnecessary barriers are being erected against reopening schools, unworkable restrictions are being placed on summer camps, and risks of outdoor transmissions are being exaggerated. Walensky replied that CDC guidance on outdoor transmission was based on a meta-analysis of over 19 studies, but she did not elaborate on the reliability of the individual studies included.
Several studies have found the outdoor transmission rates of COVID-19 to be extremely low. In April, The Irish Times received data from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC), which showed that only 1 out of every 1000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Ireland could be traced back to outdoor transmission.
“Of the 232,164 cases of Covid-19 recorded in the State up to March 24th this year, 262 were as a result of outdoor transmission, representing 0.1 percent of the total. There were 42 outbreaks associated with outdoor gatherings, with one community outbreak accounting for seven cases. This involved an outdoor work activity which took place between two separate families,” The Irish Times reported.
Moreover, in a Chinese study published in October last year analyzing 7,324 cases of infections, only one incident of an outdoor outbreak with two associated COVID-19 cases was found.
CDC mask guidance changed again
With regard to masks, in July 2020, the CDC conducted a study in which the majority of coronavirus patients had worn masks prior to getting infected. “In the 14 days before illness onset, 71% of case-patients and 74% of control participants reported always using cloth face coverings or other mask types when in public,” the report stated.
On May 13, the CDC again updated its guidance to say that “If you are fully vaccinated, you can resume activities that you did before the pandemic. Fully vaccinated people can resume activities without wearing a mask or physically distancing,” except in certain federal, state, or local situations.
With yet another change in recommendations, critics pointed out that the promise of returning to “normal life” could be a deliberate attempt to coerce citizens to get the experimental vaccines. Survival rates of COVID-19 are over 99% for the majority of age groups, and a recent study showed that almost 70 percent of COVID-19 hospitalizations can be attributed to four cardiometabolic risk factors.
Critics state that if more resources were dedicated to educating people about lifestyle changes and how to strengthen natural immunity, tens of thousands of hospitalizations could potentially have been prevented.
With reporting by Prakash Gogoi.