You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The CDC Says We’re All Essential Workers Now

The endless pandemic is being framed as an economic liability more than a matter of public health.

a flight attendant pushes a cart down the aisle of a plane
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images
With thousands of flights canceled due to omicron, airlines have asked the CDC to relax its recommendations on isolation for infected employees.

This month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ran a few ads that deviated from its typical messaging around community responsibility and public health. In early December, spots in English and Spanish ran on Facebook featuring a person wearing an apron hard to describe as anything but Starbucks-green. “My job puts me at high risk for Covid-19 exposure,” the worker says. “I got vaccinated because it’s better to be protected than to be out sick.” Later, in a tweet a few days after Christmas, the CDC reminded the public that “the average hospital stay related to Covid-19 can cost thousands of dollars” while the vaccine remains free. It was accompanied by a cute cartoon of a person laid up in a hospital bed with a price tag affixed to the IV drip, an image that so accurately portrayed a constellation of American problems that it went viral, at least by the standards of a government agency post.

These public service announcements, which urge a person to get vaccinated more out of concern for their checking account than their bodily wellbeing, have run parallel to the CDC’s confounding rollout of a set of new Covid-19 guidelines that frame the pandemic as an economic liability rather than a matter of public health. Within a week, a series of announcements recently expanded recommendation of shorter isolation times after exposure from health care workers to the entire population. In a bizarre line of thinking, a former Baltimore health commissioner told CNN the new rules would incentivize people to get tested because they’d be willing to risk missing just five days out of work rather than 10. This does not ring true considering, for instance, that a person who really needs the work won’t be particularly inclined to take five unpaid days off. And that’s assuming that in the near future it will be easy and cheap to get a Covid-19 test.

As omicron cases have risen quickly, politicians are concerned that the entire country will once again be ground to a halt, and they are balancing that possibility against early reports that vaccinated populations are less likely to get very sick or die (never mind the unvaxxed; I guess the venomous calculous is that they deserve it.) But the Biden administration has also faced pressure from businesses to classify all work as essential—pressure that’s been ongoing since Hobby Lobby and wrestling federations were allowed to remain open during early lockdowns. Now it seems like Covid-19 guidelines are being reverse-engineered to conform to what the agency thinks businesses might accept.

Last week, the CDC recommended health care workers be allowed to return to work after as few as five days during an emergency provided they are asymptomatic and test negative, a move described as a necessary bending of the rules in a moment when hospitals are filling up with Covid patients and many facilities remain short-staffed. Days later, a similar provision was extended to all asymptomatic Americans using research that showed people were most infectious for a few days before and after they felt sick. The extension of the rules for so-called essential workers to everyone who works was preceded by letters from airline companies asking the agency to relax its recommendations as hundreds of flights were grounded because attendants and pilots were sick. Nurses’ unions and flight attendants have vehemently protested the new measures, while infectious disease experts express their own sets of concerns.

On Tuesday, the United States tallied its highest single-day total of new Covid-19 cases, besting the previous record by about 150,000. By Wednesday morning, Rochelle Walensky, the director of the CDC, had appeared on at least five television networks to explain the rationale behind the new guidance, which basically amounted to maintaining “social function,” a useful catch-all that could mean just about anything. “There were starting to be limitations in society, not just in our health-care workforce but in other parts of society,” she told The Washington Post. On CNN, she said it was also an issue of compliance, noting that some studies showed fewer than one-third of Americans actually isolated when they should, and that the decision “really had a lot to do with what we thought people would tolerate.” Reading between the lines, it sounds a whole lot like an agency exhausted from screaming into the wind.

It’s often been said that there is no return to a postpandemic landscape, and that’s certainly true, but it’s also worth asking what kinds of measures are taken to get back to something that feels routine. Obviously, in the nearly two years since most of the U.S. first locked down, people have been going to work sick, and whether that continues to happen doesn’t have much to do with whether they’re asked to isolate for five days or 10 or 14. Businesses have remained open despite government recommendations, putting workers at risk of infection. Nurses with Covid continued to work.

The revised guidelines might not feel off-putting at all if it weren’t for how little anything else has shifted. The message—from the CDC, from Congress, from President Joe Biden himself—is that in the endless pandemic, it’s time to find ways for the disease to disrupt daily life less. This is certainly reasonable enough. But put against the failure to offer paid leave to all or secure enough tests for an entirely foreseeable surge, this attitude feels faintly ridiculous. There are a lot of ways to facilitate normalcy and support the economy during a surge. But making sure infected flight attendants can return to Delta after a just few days is not particularly convincing—or safe.