Public Health Officials Blew Up Their Credibility, and We're Paying the Price

Vaccine hesitancy can, in part, be laid at the feet of experts who betrayed the public’s trust.


With COVID-19 still sickening and killing people even though effective vaccines have been widely available for all since the spring, it's frustrating to see vaccination rates creep up only slowly against a head-wind of widespread resistance. It's even more frustrating that much of that resistance can be attributed to self-inflicted wounds on the part of public health experts and government officials. Having effectively discarded their own credibility since the beginning of the pandemic, the powers-that-be find that much of the population no longer places faith in what they have to say.

"Why aren't tens of millions of eligible Americans fully vaccinated against COVID-19?" The Economist and YouGov asked in a recent poll. "Most who haven't started the vaccination process say it's a matter of trust."

"Americans who are sure they will not get the vaccine are especially likely to say their lack of trust in the government is their major reason for rejecting the vaccine," the polling firm adds, with 22 percent of respondents giving that as their reason for refusing vaccination, second to concerns about side effects.

Critics are certain to wave off the findings as the unfounded concerns of low-information knuckle-draggers who need to be poked and prodded into compliance. But, while such dismissal may confer a warm and fuzzy feeling of superiority, it doesn't explain why health professionals also have lost faith in public-health officials.

"Trust in the CDC and FDA has decreased dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic among health care professionals," WebMD/Medscape noted in June. "Out of nearly 2,000 U.S. nurses surveyed on Medscape (WebMD's sister site for health care professionals) between May 25 and June 3, 77% said their trust in the CDC has decreased since the start of the pandemic, and 51% said their trust in the FDA has decreased. Similarly, out of nearly 450 U.S. doctors surveyed in the same time period, 77% said their trust in the CDC has decreased and 48% said their trust in the FDA has decreased."

Respondents to the WebMD/Medscape poll cited concerns about politics affecting public health decisions as well as contradictory messaging about masks, vaccination, and proper conduct to avoid infection. Both of those concerns were on display last year when public health officials went from condemning anti-lockdown protests to promoting protests against police brutality and racial injustice.

"Are Protests Dangerous? What Experts Say May Depend on Who's Protesting What," The New York Times headlined an article on the whiplash-inducing change in messaging over the potential health risks of public gatherings.

"I certainly condemned the anti-lockdown protests at the time, and I'm not condemning the protests now, and I struggle with that," Catherine Troisi, an epidemiologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center, conceded to the Times. "I have a hard time articulating why that is OK."

"It's one thing to protest what day nail salons are opening, and it's another to come out in peaceful protest, overwhelmingly, about somebody who was murdered right before our eyes," New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy huffed in an open assertion that only protests with which he agreed were acceptable.

To large numbers of Americans, it's obvious that many of the people issuing public health dictates base their proclamations not on science but on their personal biases. Those seeking actual medical guidance, or who entertain different values, might feel perfectly justified in ignoring public health officials who reveal themselves as just another class of activists.

Hypocrisy also plays a powerful role in eroding trust for officialdom. Last month, San Francisco Mayor London Breed was caught partying at a nightclub unmasked, in defiance of her own orders.

"No, I'm not going to sip and put my mask on, sip and put my mask on, sip and put my mask on, eat and put my mask on. While I'm eating, and I'm drinking, I'm going to keep my mask off," Breed told a reporter. She also kept her mask off while dancing, which she defended by saying she "wasn't thinking about a mask, I was thinking about having a good time." It was a sentiment that many regular people no doubt share, but which could get them fined if they were caught acting on it.

Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser also exempted herself from the rules when it was convenient.

"Despite the mayor's order, the wedding reception featured hundreds of unmasked guests served by dozens of wait staff, including a conspicuously unmasked Bowser," the Washington Examiner noted at the end of July.

Breed and Bowser are hardly alone, since pandemic rules have overwhelmingly been applied only to the little people and ignored by those who make them and their friends. It's difficult to imagine a more effective way of eroding officialdom's standing with the general public.

"Even if institutions manage to walk back their mistakes, this self-destructive behavior will have serious long-term consequences," Zaid Jilani observed last week for Persuasion on the flurry of recent own-goals scored by supposedly reliable experts. "If institutions continue to undermine their own credibility, people may start going to less reliable sources for information instead."

Jilani didn't even address the ongoing fiasco of pandemic-era guidance, but instead focused on politicization in museums, think tanks, and universities. The effect is the same, though: abandoning objectivity and substituting ideological preferences for consistent standards damages trust. It took a long time for experts and officials to build whatever standing they had with the public; too many of them seem dead-set on burning it as quickly as possible.

One end result of destroyed credibility, as we've seen, is resistance among part of the population to vaccination for COVID-19, with trust cited as the reason for that hesitancy. The fact is, millions of Americans simply distrust the people who tell them that the vaccines are safe and effective for reducing the dangers of the disease and have turned to alternative sources that echo the public's disdain for the powers-that-be while also peddling bad medical information. Yes, anti-vaxxers are making bad choices, but they've been strongly nudged in that direction by self-destructive experts.

Officials are justified in complaining about vaccine hesitancy among the general population. But, when they're looking for somebody to blame about the public's resistance to medical advice, they should look in the mirror.