By Joseph Antos
My AEI colleague Scott Gottlieb points out that the science behind the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) shifting recommendations on social distancing is far from clear. Until recently, the CDC recommended that we stay six feet from others, causing most public schools to shut down for a year. The loss of in-person education for an entire generation of students is likely to hurt those who are already disadvantaged: kids in low-income families relegated to online classes and their parents, many of whom have had to stop working to keep their children safe. But the CDC now says — without explanation — that three feet is good enough.
Is three feet good enough? I turn to one of my favorite cable television shows for an answer, and the evidence is disturbing. MythBusters, a pop-science series that once ran on the Discovery Channel, included an episode on sneezing. (Disclosure: Yes, this is the kind of television I enjoy, and one of my sons works for the Discovery Channel but doesn’t subscribe to cable.) Episode 147, aired on June 9, 2010, tested the potential spread of nasal secretions from sneezing. The numbers, and the sneezes, are not pretty.
At their farthest, droplets flew 17 feet for Adam Savage and 13 feet for Jamie Hyneman (the program’s hosts). Children in school will not be trying to set a distance record, and they probably have less firepower than grown men. Attempts to cover a sneeze would reduce the spread. But this evidence should give any helicopter parent pause.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that we all need to distance at 13 or 17 feet. Rather, it shows that we’ll be incurring some level of risk whether we social distance at three or six feet. And that’s what we’ve been missing in the increasingly loud debate over COVID: a serious discussion of the risks and rewards of various public health measures. “Following the science” should take into account a host of health, social, and economic concerns. And public health officials should be more forthcoming about both the basis for their recommendations and the unavoidable tradeoffs among important societal goals.
CDC guidance has evolved along with our understanding of the coronavirus and the introduction of vaccines and treatments that did not exist a year ago. Public officials should temper their pronouncements accordingly, with a clearer understanding that undue focus on one goal comes at an increasingly high cost for millions of Americans.