Former FDA Chief: Science Behind CDC’s Costly 6-Foot Social-Distance Rule Not Fully Known

Former Food and Drug Administration commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said Sunday the science that was used to establish the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s highly influential six-foot social distancing decree isn’t fully known.

“More distance is always better when it comes to contagion,” Gottlieb wrote at The Wall Street Journal. “But the 6-foot directive might have been the single costliest measure CDC has recommended, which have been largely followed over the past year.”

“So what science went into making—and, more important, sustaining—the recommendation?” he posed. “Nobody knows for sure.”

Gottlieb wrote that the six-foot distance rule to ostensibly slow the spread of COVID was largely established based on information we know about the flu, not COVID, in addition to some old studies that were “hardly conclusive.”

Most agree the guideline derives from a belief that Covid is largely spread through respiratory droplets, like flu. Old studies suggest that larger respiratory droplets are unlikely to travel more than 6 feet, and therefore close contact with an infected person is the primary mode of exposure. This research was hardly conclusive, but by most accounts it formed the basis for the initial Covid recommendations. More-recent research shows that the novel coronavirus can also spread through airborne particles, known as aerosols, especially indoors.

Gottlieb, writing for the Wall Street Journal, seemingly excused the bad CDC recommendations as a product of poor initial information, but hammered the agency for not sufficiently re-evaluating its guidance, which is likely tied to the CDC’s relative lack of transparency.

“Most planning for a pandemic prepared for a bad flu outbreak. Given how little was known about Covid, it was reasonable to base early assumptions on the flu blueprint,” Gottlieb wrote. “But this doctrine wasn’t revisited as more data became available about the novel coronavirus.”

“Experts were trying to protect Americans, and we can’t blame them for being wrong in the absence of good information,” the former FDA head said. “The question is whether there is an effective process for establishing these measures and re-evaluating them as new information emerges. Science isn’t a set of unchanging truths handed down by a government agency.”

A recent retrospective study cited by the CDC, shows similar virus transmission rates for school settings that have six-foot distancing versus three-foot distancing when people wear masks, and so long as community transmission is low and the school is taking sufficient safety measures. Updated CDC guidance says that elementary schools, as well as some middle and high schools, can operate with a minimum of three-foot spacing in the classroom, a change in recommendations that Gottlieb noted in his op-ed.

“The agency’s guidance, even though it is nonbinding, has more impact than many regulations, but much less transparency and public scrutiny,” wrote Gottlieb of the CDC’s guidance. “There are no open dockets or opportunities for expert input, such as public advisory meetings.

COVID, instead, was both underestimated and overestimated by U.S. public health officials “in important ways,” shaping our response and the subsequent fallout, wrote Gottlieb.

The World Health Organization, Gottlieb said, “has allowed 1 meter of distance (around 39 inches) both in and out of school,” and “China, France, Denmark and Hong Kong, among others, went with this spacing.” The New York Times reported that the “American Academy of Pediatrics recommends three to six feet of social distancing in schools, but the World Health Organization recommends just one meter, or 3.3 feet.”

In the U.S., the CDC’s dubious six-foot recommendation set the tone for guidance in the private and public sector, crushing the economy and sparking other health issues.

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