This section is an ongoing compilation of tough questions related to COVID-19, with suggested answers. Many of these topics are sensitive and often politicized. The document is designed to provide message guidance and framing for public health officials and others, and it is regularly updated to reflect new developments and emerging issues.

Vaccines

Can I visit friends and family after I am vaccinated?

Fully vaccinated people can visit with other fully vaccinated people indoors without wearing masks or physical distancing. You can also visit with unvaccinated people from a single household who are at low risk for severe COVID-19 disease without wearing a mask or physical distancing.

See graphic “I got a COVID-19 vaccine. Now what?

Added March 11, 2021

When will I be able to get a COVID-19 vaccine?

Three vaccines, one developed by Johnson & Johnson, one by Pfizer-BioNTech, the third by Moderna, have been authorized for emergency use by the Food and Drug Administration and vaccinations have begun. Because the initial supplies of any vaccine are limited, we’re starting by vaccinating people with highest risk of contracting the virus and people who are the highest risk of a severe infection. As more vaccine becomes available, we will vaccinate people in additional categories. The hope is that most Americans will be able to be vaccinated by summer.

[EXPLAIN HOW VACCINES ARE BEING PRIORITIZED AND ADMINISTERED IN YOUR COMMUNITY.]

Getting more people vaccinated will be a turning point in controlling the virus. However, it does not mean an immediate return to day-to-day activities. Until enough people are vaccinated to slow the spread of the virus, we can all protect our own health and that of our loved ones by wearing face masks, practicing social distancing, and washing hands regularly to slow the spread of the of the pandemic.

Is it important that I get the second dose?

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is a single-dose vaccine, while the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines are based on a two-dose regimen. It’s important to get both doses of these vaccines because that’s what was shown to be effective during the clinical trials. Vaccine supply is improving and health departments nationwide, including ours, are working to ensure that everyone who receives the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines is able to get both doses as recommended.

 

If I’m offered the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine, should I take it or wait for other vaccine availability?

Getting vaccinated with any vaccine as soon as it is available to you will greatly reduce your risk of serious illness due to the virus. All of the vaccines that have been approved for use in the United States have been proven to be safe and highly effective. In testing in the U.S. and other countries, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has been shown to be 100% effective in preventing COVID-19 deaths, 85% effective against severe COVID-19 infections, and 66% effective against all COVID-19 infections.

Most vaccination sites will be using only one vaccine type, so you will probably not get to select which vaccine you get. Getting vaccinated as soon as it is available matters more than which vaccine you get.

The addition of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is expected to greatly increase the availability of vaccine doses nationwide. It requires only one dose, and, because it can be stored in a regular refrigerator, a local pharmacy or a doctor’s office could potentially be a vaccination site. That will help increase vaccine access in what are today hard-to-reach places due to the specialized cold storage requirements of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines.

See graphic comparing the three vaccines.

Added March 12, 2021

How are vaccines being distributed, and who will be prioritized to receive it?

We are relying on recommendations from public health and medical experts to guide our decisions on prioritization for the initial, limited supply of the vaccines. Based on work, age, or underlying medical conditions, individuals who have a higher chance of contracting COVID-19 or experiencing severe illness from the virus are first in line to be vaccinated.

As more vaccine doses become available, we will extend distribution to the broader population in a phased approach.

[PROVIDE DETAILS ON LOCAL PRIORITIZATION AND ROLLOUT.]

Why is local prioritization different than the CDC recommendations?

The CDC has provided general recommendations for vaccine distribution, but it is up to states and local health departments to determine vaccine prioritization in their jurisdictions. Our local vaccine distribution plan has been developed to address our specific populations and needs in our community.

[EXPLAIN THE SPECIFIC NEEDS OF YOUR COMMUNITY AND HOW YOUR DISTRIBUTION PLAN ADDRESSES THEM.]

We are working to ensure that our plan prioritizes equitable vaccine access and is transparent about who will receive initial vaccine doses.

I already had COVID-19, why do I still need the vaccine?

Not enough is yet known about how long immunity from natural COVID-19 illness might last and protect you from becoming re-infected and spreading the illness to others. For that reason, even if you have already been infected, vaccination is an important step to protect yourself and those around you.

Why should I trust that the vaccine is safe when it was developed so quickly?

The FDA approves a vaccine for use only if it is proven safe and effective, after clinical trials have been conducted with thousands of people, and when its benefits outweigh any risks. The COVID-19 vaccine builds on years of scientific research and an unprecedented level of scientific investment and cooperation. Every study and every phase of every trial was carefully reviewed and approved by a safety board and the FDA. The process was transparent and rigorous throughout, with continual oversight and expert approval.

The likelihood of a medically significant rection is extremely low. Temporary side effects like soreness, headaches, or a mild fever are signs that the body is responding and building an immunity to the virus. They typically go away in a day or two.

How can I be sure the long-term side effects of the vaccine won’t be worse than having COVID-19?

The threat of COVID-19 is real and urgent, and the benefits of getting vaccinated far outweigh the risks. COVID-19 is killing thousands of Americans every day and leaving many others with lasting symptoms and disability. Getting vaccinated will help keep you, your family, and your community healthy and safe and will allow for the full reopening of the economy.

I understand your concern.  What I can tell you is that vaccines don’t generally have long-term side effects and there is no reason to believe the COVID-19 vaccine will.  To be sure, the FDA and the scientists, health and medical experts, and researchers who developed the vaccine are closely monitoring for side effects and symptoms reported by anyone who is vaccinated, watching out for any patterns that are out of the ordinary. Data will continue to be collected for two years after each vaccine is first administered to ensure that they are safe for the long term.

How long does it take for the vaccine to provide immunity?

You are considered fully vaccinated for COVID-19 two weeks after you have received the second dose in a two-dose series (Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna) or two weeks after you have received a single-dose vaccine (Johnson & Johnson). While vaccines must be highly effective to be approved for use, no vaccine provides 100% immunity, so fully vaccinated individuals should continue to take precautions in public and when around unvaccinated people.

Added March 12, 2021

Am I permanently immune after getting vaccinated?

Because this is a new virus and these are new vaccines, we don’t yet know how long immunity will last and whether additional doses will be needed, as they are for the flu. The FDA and the scientists and health and medical experts who developed the vaccines are continuing to study the virus and vaccines closely to understand how long immunity lasts and how well the vaccines protect against new mutations of the virus. While vaccines must be highly effective to be approved for use, no vaccine provides 100% immunity. Fully vaccinated individuals should continue to take precautions in public and when around unvaccinated people.

See graphic “I got a COVID-19 vaccine. Now what?

Added March 12, 2021

Do I still need to wear a mask and practice social distancing after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine?

Vaccines are a critical tool to ending the spread of the COVID-19 virus, but they do not immediately eliminate all risk. While vaccines must be highly effective to be approved for use, no vaccine provides 100% immunity, and we don’t yet know whether vaccinated individuals can still transmit the virus to others.

To protect your friends, family, and community, fully vaccinated people should continue to take precautions like wearing a well-fitted mask and physical distancing when in public, when visiting with unvaccinated people who are at increased risk for severe COVID-19 disease, and when visiting with unvaccinated people from multiple households.

See graphic “I got a COVID-19 vaccine. Now what?

Added March 12, 2021

Why has the number of vaccines administered (as opposed to delivered to warehouses, etc.) fallen so far short of goals?

Distribution of a new vaccine to the entire population is a logistical effort unlike anything we’ve ever undertaken as a nation, and requires close coordination between federal, state, tribal, territorial, and local officials. Furthermore, the logistics of administering the vaccine have been made more complicated because distribution needs to be done on a priority basis and the vaccine itself requires cold storage.

The federal government is overseeing a centralized system to distribute and track the vaccine. Orders for vaccines are submitted by states to the federal government and shipped to localities from centralized locations.

Many public health experts point toward insufficient coordination and planning between the federal Operation Warp Speed program’s development of the vaccine and delivery of the vaccine to centralized distribution centers and the states’ role to administer the vaccine as a critical juncture that did not receive enough attention, planning, or funding.

Many state and local agencies need federal funding and coordination assistance in order to efficiently administer the vaccine to millions of people. In addition, some states are managing surges in COVID-19 cases while also being asked to implement a vaccine administration program. With many hospitals facing nearly full capacity, healthcare systems are stretched thin to both care for patients and provide staff for the vaccination process.

[DESCRIBE WHAT YOUR STATE/LOCAL HEALTH DEPARTMENT IS DOING TO ADMINISTER OR PREPARE TO ADMINISTER VACCINES IN YOUR COMMUNITY.]

Added March 12, 2021

What is the risk of having an adverse reaction to the vaccine?

The risk of a medically significant adverse reaction to the COVID-19 vaccine is extremely low and the CDC and FDA are closely monitoring the safety of all approved vaccines. It’s important to distinguish between mild and expected reactions, like some soreness in the arm, fatigue, headache or a slight fever that lasts a day or two, and medically significant reactions, which are very rare. Through early January, cases of anaphylaxis (an allergic reaction) were occurring about 5.5 times for every 1 million COVID-19 vaccine doses.

If you have a question about whether the vaccine is safe for you, you should talk to your physician.

Updated January 12, 2021

How will we know if a COVID-19 vaccine is safe?

The U.S. has a long history of assuring vaccines are safe through the use of specific, detailed, and time-tested protocols. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced on October 6 that before approving a potential COVID-19 vaccine, it will need to see two months of follow-up data after volunteers get their second vaccine doses in a clinical trial. This is a sign that the FDA is taking every precaution to ensure the safety of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Clinical development for vaccines is a three-phase process. During Phase I, small groups of people receive the trial vaccine. In Phase II, the clinical study is expanded and the vaccine is given to people who have characteristics (such as age and physical health) similar to those for whom the new vaccine is intended. In the case of COVID-19 vaccines, Phase II trials in the U.S. should have a demographic makeup similar to that of the country, spanning a wide range of ages, races, ethnicities, and any other factors that would affect risk and efficacy. In Phase III, the vaccine is given to thousands of people and tested for efficacy and safety. During clinical development, a trial vaccine’s effectiveness is determined by comparing outcomes of patients who have received it with outcomes of patients who received the placebo.

In the U.S., the findings from clinical trials are presented to and reviewed by the FDA. The FDA also inspects manufacturing facilities to ensure safety and reviews product labels to ensure clarity. After approving a vaccine, the FDA continues to monitor and oversee its production to ensure that all safety protocols are followed. In addition, many vaccines undergo Phase IV formal, ongoing studies after the vaccine is approved and licensed. The FDA and CDC also collect and analyze information from reports of any side effects that may occur after a vaccine has been licensed.

In summary, before any new vaccine is brought to market, it has been given to thousands of people under stringent monitoring for safety. Sometimes, very rare side effects are recognized only after the vaccine is licensed because they occur so infrequently, but such side effects are very rare and must be weighed against the good the vaccine will do.

Updated January 12, 2021

Why is it important to have diversity among clinical trial subjects?

Everyone is susceptible to infection by the coronavirus. For that reason, a coronavirus vaccine needs to be safe and effective for all people regardless of their age, race, ethnicity, or gender.  Therefore, it’s important to have diversity among participants in clinical trials that measure a potential vaccine’s safety and effectiveness. Safety and effectiveness for all groups of people is particularly important for a COVID-19 vaccine because of the virus’s disproportionate impact on people of color, people with underlying medical conditions, and the elderly. A vaccine that is not sufficiently tested in a diverse clinical trial pool could lead to unexpected effects that didn’t appear in a trial with a more general population.

In May the FDA “strongly encouraged” the inclusion of diverse populations in COVID-19 clinical vaccine trials, including racial and ethnic minorities, the elderly, people with underlying medical conditions, and pregnant women. However, according to Clinical Research Pathways, a nonprofit that focuses on increasing diversity in clinical research, Black people typically represent only about 5 percent of clinical trial pool participants, even though they make up 13 percent of the U.S. population. Hispanics are typically about 1 percent of clinical trial pool participants but make up 18 percent of the population. Overall, Blacks, Hispanics, American Indians, and Alaska Natives make up approximately 32 percent of the U.S. population; optimally, they should be at least 32 percent of the people participating in the COVID-19 clinical trials.

Moderna, a biotechnology company working with the National Institutes of Health to develop a vaccine, recently announced that its vaccine trial pool is 37 percent minority participants.

Updated January 12, 2021

Pandemic fatigue

Why should we continue to put our lives on hold when there’s still no agreement on how to end this pandemic?

We understand that people are tired, but public health measures are not the enemy – they are the roadmap for a faster and more sustainable recovery.

Public health policy measures are in place to prevent crippling surges and make re-opening possible. Scientists and medical professionals are doing everything they can to produce and distribute vaccines that will help us return to more normal day-to-day activities. Public health officials estimate that 70 to 85% of Americans need to be vaccinated to stop the spread of the virus. Until then, getting vaccinated and the 3 Ws – wearing a mask, watching your distance, and washing your hands – are the best tools we have to stop the spread of the virus.

updated February 24

Trust in public health officials

There have been reports suggesting the CDC’s reputation has been diminished as a result of its role in the COVID-19 response. Is the CDC’s leadership still credible?

For decades, the CDC has put its scientific expertise to work to protect Americans from infectious disease, chronic illness, and preventable injuries. Around the world, the agency is a trusted source for public health and health promotion guidance; the CDC’s career staff remain a respected and credible information source.

The CDC is at its best when its scientists are free to provide public health advice based on the best available data and free of any political or non-scientific considerations.

There’s no avoiding the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has been extremely challenging for the entire country, including the CDC. There was an early misstep at the CDC with the initial development of a COVID-19 test. However, since then CDC has gathered and shared data on the pandemic’s impact, produced educational materials, distributed billions of dollars in grant funding to local, state, tribal, and territorial agencies, and supported essential services necessary for testing, contact tracing, and protection of the public.

However, the CDC has not had the central and visible roles in coordinating and messaging during the COVID-19 pandemic that it had during past infectious disease outbreaks, including malaria, HIV, H1N1, Ebola, and Zika. This lack of a central, public-facing role for the CDC has impeded the federal response, contributed to mixed messaging on the optimal response to the pandemic, and delayed and sometimes distorted the guidance needed by the American public.

Everyone benefits when the CDC is allowed to do its job without interference and with regular, unfettered science-based messaging offered directly to the public and policymakers.

Thousands of rank-and-file CDC employees are scientists and public health experts, dedicated only to the protection of the public. These career professionals remain at their desks and in the field doing the day in and day out work necessary to fight the virus. Going forward, the nation needs to ensure that science guides public health unfettered by any interference. When statements are made or policies suggested that are not grounded in science, public health experts need to continue to say so.

Why should people trust public health officials?

Public health officials are trained and experienced in responding to infectious disease outbreaks and life-threatening emergencies. They work closely with scientists and researchers to translate the latest findings into action with the express goal of keeping people as safe and healthy as possible.

Public health officials strive to be guided by science and independent of political or partisan considerations. The most effective way to address COVID-19 is to have state, local, and federal officials working in coordination and operating based on scientific guidance.

What is a public health official’s most important role during a health emergency?

As always, the role of public health officials is to follow the science, develop programs and guidelines that protect health, advise elected officials, work with public and private sector partners, and keep the public informed.

updated November 3

Herd immunity

What is herd immunity, and is it a viable strategy to combat COVID-19?

Herd immunity is achieved when a virus stops circulating because a large segment of the population has already been infected or has been vaccinated against the virus. Public health officials estimate that 70 to 85% of the population will need to be vaccinated before herd immunity is achieved. Until then, getting vaccinated and the 3 Ws – wearing a mask, watching your distance, and washing your hands – are the best tools we have to stop the spread of the virus.

updated February 24

Hospital shortages

Health care providers have had months to build capacity and supplies to manage the COVID-19 outbreak. Why are we hearing about shortages of beds and supplies again?

The most serious potential shortage is for hospital intensive care capacity. The only way to prevent such shortages is to control the spread of COVID-19. In the last year, we have seen increased risk for shortages following unprecedented surge in cases, often after holidays or other moments of large gatherings. In those situations, patients may be at risk if the capacity of local hospitals to provide intensive care is exceeded by the number of patients needing that care. That’s why it is vital for us to work together and follow the latest public health guidance to prevent the spread of the virus.

updated February 24

Economy + jobs

Have public health measures had a negative impact on the national economy?

Public health measures are not an obstacle to a return to normalcy, they are the roadmap to faster and sustained recovery. Americans are coping with job losses, school closures, social isolation, and fears around health and safety. Many people are frightened, angry, and frustrated. As public health officials, we share this frustration. We want the economy and our schools to open. At the same time, we want to protect our families, friends, and neighbors from the virus, and we know that if we don’t, there will be even worse consequences for the economy and for schools.

As we have consistently seen in the United States and around the world, public health measures effectively control the spread of the virus and make re-opening possible. New York’s rebound from the worst in the nation for COVID-19 spread is a one example.

Nobody should have to decide between the health of their family and putting food on the table. The goal is both public health safety and economic security; the two are dependent on each other.

updated November 3

Testing

Is rapid testing effective for diagnosing and preventing the spread of COVID-19?

Rapid antigen tests are relatively inexpensive and, with proper interpretation, can be used to quickly confirm a suspected case of COVID-19 in a clinical setting. However, these tests are less sensitive than the recommended RT-PCR tests and more likely to return a false negative. Because they are less sensitive, rapid tests perform best when the person is tested in the early stages of infection, when viral load is generally highest. There is limited evidence to confirm the efficacy of rapid antigen tests to detect or exclude COVID-19 in asymptomatic people accurately or determine whether a previously confirmed case is still infectious.

In short, rapid tests are useful for confirming infection in someone with symptoms. They are less reliable in screening of people who are asymptomatic.

Why is it important to get tested?

Widespread testing is critical to identifying and forecasting outbreaks, conducting effective contact tracing, and determining how safe it is to re-open the economy and schools. Regardless of symptoms, people who have had close contact with an infected individual should get tested for COVID-19.

Efforts to increase testing and make the results available quickly are continuing. Anyone experiencing COVID-19 symptoms or with reason to believe they may have been exposed should operate under a “positive until proven negative” mentality, self-quarantining until they receive test results.

updated February 24

Treatment

What is the difference between “emergency use” and “compassionate use” for drugs and other therapies?

Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) allows the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to authorize use of unapproved drugs, or unapproved uses of approved drugs, for life-threatening conditions when there are no adequate, approved, and available options and other conditions are met. In the case of COVID-19, the FDA has issued an Emergency Use Authorization for remdesivir, an investigational antiviral drug that is not currently FDA-approved, to treat hospitalized adult and pediatric patients with severe COVID-19.

Compassionate use, also called expanded access, is when a patient with an immediately life-threatening condition or serious disease or condition is given access to an investigational medicine for treatment outside of clinical trials when no comparable or satisfactory alternative therapy options are available. Patients must petition for compassionate use and meet a series of criteria to get expanded access. In the case of COVID-19, patients with life-threatening cases of COVID-19 can petition for expanded access to COVID-19 treatments that are currently in the clinical trial phase.

What is an experimental drug or treatment?

Experimental or investigational drugs and treatments have not yet been approved by the FDA and are currently being studied in clinical trials. During these trials, scientists determine whether a drug is safe and effective, how it should be used, the correct dosage, and the benefits and risks for people taking the drug.

added October 18

Contact tracing

How can a public health department expect someone who has just been diagnosed with COVID to provide information on possible contacts if those contacts may face hardship by being identified, such as being unable to go to work?

Contact tracing is currently one of the most important tools we have for controlling the spread of the virus. While we understand that no one wants to be the reason someone is unable to work, allowing the virus to spread unchecked will be much more harmful to your community and would have an even greater impact on employment. Cooperating with contact tracers will help prevent people from getting sick. Preventing further spread of the virus is the best strategy we have to protect jobs and livelihoods.

That said, efforts are being made to lessen the impact of going into quarantine. There are both formal and informal ways to assist people who need to quarantine. In some communities, there are services available or volunteers to help – for example, by delivering meals to people who are at home. Hardship can also be lessened when employers offer paid sick leave to employees who need to stay home

Why aren’t communities prepared to do contact tracing at an effective scale?

Contact tracing is the practice of informing people when they’ve been exposed to a contagious disease. It is an essential part of a comprehensive response to slowing the spread of COVID-19. However, because the scale of contract tracing required by the COVID-19 outbreak is beyond anything we’ve ever experienced, the size of the necessary contract tracing effort was not planned or funded.

There are ways to make contract tracing more manageable and therefore more effective. Health departments need faster COVID testing, funding to hire and train more contact tracers, and sufficient financial and social service support for those who are asked to isolate rather than return to work. We also need the public’s cooperation if they are contacted by a contact tracer.

updated October 18

Changes in official guidance

With guidance from the federal government changing so frequently, where can I go for reliable COVID-19 information?

Safety guidance has changed as more has been learned about the virus and how to prevent its spread. The rate of virus spread in your local community, in addition to your individual health status, will largely determine the safest options for you. Your local health department is an important source of COVID-19 information that’s specific to your community.

How can people trust public officials when guidance has been unclear and is constantly changing?

We understand it is frustrating that guidance continues to change. It’s the job of public health officials to tell you what we know, when we know it, and guidance regarding COVID-19 has evolved as our understanding of the virus evolves.

Public health officials and scientists are continuing to learn about how this virus spreads, how it affects different people, and how best to control it. As knowledge evolves and scientists discover new information about COVID-19, public health officials are committed to providing accurate and timely guidance.

updated September 25

Sports

Can my child safely participate in sports?

Providing the opportunity for kids to get exercise is as important as ever. While the best way to limit your child’s risk from the coronavirus is by ensuring they only engage in activities that allow participants to maintain six feet of distance, there are additional ways that leagues, players, and parents can protect families and communities and slow the spread of COVID-19. Participants should stay home if they’re sick, bring their own equipment to practice, maintain six feet of space from others, wear a mask if possible, and ensure proper hygiene. At the same time, leagues can focus on lower-risk activities like outdoor skills-building and conditioning rather than running the risk of contact between players. Certain activities are also safer than others — like tennis, soccer drills rather than scrimmages, and passing and catching football drills.

Is it safe for scholastic sports leagues to play? Professional leagues have been operating.

The risk of activities varies greatly depending on local community spread, so any decision about school sports should be made based upon the virus status locally. What may be considered moderate risk in some areas would be high risk in others.

Professional leagues are different from high school and college athletics in many ways, most notably that they can keep their athletes in a bubble and oversee their other activities. By contrast, student athletes do not occur in a bubble, which means they face increased risk for themselves, their family members, and their school’s students and staff. While many Americans enjoy watching and playing sports, we need to ensure we aren’t putting the health and safety of students, staff, families, and our community at risk.

updated September 17

Data and reporting

Are the death tolls for COVID-19 being inflated? The CDC reports that only a small number of COVID deaths were due exclusively to COVID.

The novel coronavirus remains a serious threat to public health, and there is no evidence that the number of COVID-19 deaths has been inflated. In fact, they are probably under-reported because some people have died of COVID without being tested for the virus. The CDC’s report gives a detailed account of something we’ve known since the beginning of the pandemic – having comorbidities like diabetes, heart disease, or obesity greatly increases a person’s risk for life-threatening consequences from the infection. We also know that COVID-19 can cause other illnesses, such as pneumonia or respiratory distress.

The high rate of chronic illness in the U.S. (6 in 10 adults have a chronic disease) has contributed to the high number of COVID-19 deaths, but the cause of these deaths is COVID-19, not some other illness.

Why has data reporting been slow or incomplete under the CDC?

One of the challenges the entire public health system is facing is that most COVID-19 cases go undiagnosed due to asymptomatic infection (people who have the virus but no symptoms).

The CDC relies on local, city, state, and federal reporting systems that have been neglected for decades. CDC is also focused on providing accurate information based on reports from health departments; this means that these reports may sometimes be more delayed than reports from news organizations, which often report unconfirmed information from unofficial sources.

Investing in the data systems at CDC and state and at local health departments is essential to collecting and sharing data across different systems in an automated manner. More efficient data collection is central to controlling any infectious disease outbreak.

Equity

Has the public health response been adequate in communities of color and low-income communities?

Prevention and treatment of infectious and chronic disease for low-income people and communities of color is woefully insufficient in our country, and the COVID-19 pandemic has been no exception to that pattern.

In general, access to affordable health care services for these communities, including testing, has been more challenging than in white communities. Limited economic opportunity and substandard housing have led to higher rates of underlying chronic health conditions, making serious illness and death from COVID more likely among communities of color. In addition, people of color and lower-income Americans have also been disproportionately designated as essential workers during the pandemic, with fewer job protections, placing them at increased risk for exposure. They also tend to live in more densely populated neighborhoods, making social distancing difficult.

These circumstances are the results of our country’s long history of structural racism in housing, jobs, education and healthcare. Addressing this racism is not only critical to protecting communities of color from the impact of COVID, it is critical to address them to allow all people to lead healthy lives.

Face masks

How effective are face masks in preventing the spread of COVID-19?

Because COVID-19 spreads from person to person via respiratory droplets, properly wearing a mask helps prevent the spread of the virus to others, including those at a higher risk of severe illness, especially when paired with other prevention tactics such as proper social distancing and frequent hand washing. At this point, wearing a mask is one of the most important tools we have to fight the spread of the virus.

What type of mask is the most effective for preventing the spread of COVID-19?

Surgical and fitted N95 masks are the most effective for the prevention of spread of COVID-19. In the absence of these, homemade masks should have two or more layers of washable, breathable fabric, fit tightly against the face, cover the nose and mouth, and have wire to prevent air from leaking out of the top of the mask. For extra protection, you can layer two fabric masks or a fabric mask over a surgical mask. Masks that have any exhalation vales or vents are not recommended, as these allow for the escape of respiratory droplets.

updated February 24

Why should we trust the CDC on wearing masks when they explicitly told us not to do so at the start of the pandemic?

At the onset of the pandemic, the CDC recommended that those who exhibited COVID-19 symptoms and those who were caring for someone who had COVID-19 wear face masks. Others were dissuaded from wearing surgical masks due to a severe shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) among health workers treating COVID-19 patients and because, at that time, there wasn’t sufficient evidence of the efficacy of mask-wearing for the general public. As new research demonstrated that the virus could be easily spread by asymptomatic individuals, the CDC updated its recommendations to indicate that everyone should wear face coverings in public settings. Updating guidance is one of the many important roles the CDC plays in protecting public health, and as new scientific evidence becomes available, the agency will continue to update guidance accordingly.

Public health turnover

Why is there so much turnover among public health officials?

Public health officials are facing unprecedented levels of scrutiny and backlash as the COVID-19 pandemic takes a toll on health systems, the economy, and our nation’s education system. Despite the inevitable challenges of constantly evolving research and evidence, public health officials are the people who are best positioned to help our country emerge from this crisis as safely as possible. Unfortunately, some officials are being harassed and threatened, and have experienced intense, politicized pushback. Public health experts want the economy, schools, and businesses to open as much as anyone else. Data show that the best way to re-open and avoid being shut down repeatedly is to re-open safely while continuing to take precautions. When re-opening isn’t done safely, the economic consequences are much worse. Dismissing or attempting to intimidate the very officials working to ensure the public’s safety is undermining and delaying the full and safe re-opening of our economy and education system.

School re-openings

Shouldn’t opening schools and universities be a priority for the well-being of children and students?

Re-opening schools and universities is critical for the educational and social development of students of all ages. It is also necessary to re-open these institutions for many parents who need to return to work. At the same time, we want to ensure that schools open in a manner that prioritizes the health and safety of students, teachers, school staff, their families, and the community at large. These are not mutually exclusive goals. If schools open too early or without appropriate measures, there is an increased risk that the virus will spread and cause serious illness and deaths. If that happens, schools will need to be abruptly shut down again, creating additional disruption and even less in-person learning time.

Does COVID-19 need to be eradicated before it’s safe for schools to re-open?

The CDC has made recommendations that allow schools to safely open with strict mitigation strategies to reduce the spread of the virus. This includes having students and staff wear masks, practice social distancing, and regularly wash their hands; thoroughly cleaning school facilities; and conducting widespread testing and contract tracing. Our goal is to reduce transmission of disease to students, teachers, and staff in schools, which will help prevent infection in the wider community.

updated February 24

What can communities do to safely prepare to open schools?

The keys for safe re-opening is tracking local trends, a strong testing strategy for schools and communities, and compliance with CDC guidelines such as mask-wearing, hand washing, and social distancing. Nationally and locally, infection rates need to get down to a level where contract tracing can be effective, and communities need to adopt mask-wearing as a consistent practice. Schools and universities need systems in place to ensure that mask-wearing, hand washing, social distancing, and daily sanitation guidelines are required and consistently followed by staff, students, and their families on school grounds. For residents who want to help ensure that schools are able to re-open for full in-person learning as soon as possible, our best advice is to wear a mask, wash your hands, practice social distancing and get the vaccine when it is available to you.

updated February 24

What about schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods that serve many needs in addition to education?

Schools are more than places of learning. They provide nutrition, access to mental and behavioral health providers, access to health services, and critical social and emotional learning opportunities. If schools cannot re-open safely, it is important that school districts and local government officials identify alternative ways of providing these supports to children and their families.

Should governments punish schools and universities that refuse to open?

Decisions about school re-opening have to be made based on the community’s COVID-19 status and the school’s ability to have safety protocols in place. These decisions shouldn’t be made by edicts from the state or federal government. Local and state health officials, whose job it is to evaluate the data, are in the best position to advise about the right decision for the community. Unfortunately, we have seen the consequences of communities re-opening schools too quickly and without the necessary safety measures in place. Many have had to close down again as cases and deaths have risen.

Shouldn’t the country follow a unified plan to re-open schools?

Although the principles of safer reopening are the same, school re-openings will look different in different parts of the country. Because the rates of COVID-19 are at varying levels across communities, each region will have a different set of challenges and a different timeline in preparing to re-open. It is vital that school districts are able to listen to the guidance provided by their state and local public health officials, work to fully understand the current situation, and determine how best to keep school faculty, staff, and students safe.

Seasonal flu

Should people get a seasonal flu shot? Will the seasonal flu vaccine and the COVID-19 vaccine interact in harmful ways?

It is more important than ever to protect against influenza, which, like COVID-19, is a respiratory illness. Vaccination for the flu is critical to help reduce the overall impact of respiratory illnesses on the general population and lower the resulting burden on the healthcare system during the pandemic.

State + local response

What role do state and local public health officials play during COVID-19?

National, state, local, tribal, and territorial health officials are all working hard to ensure the safety of their communities and the country as a whole. While federal public health experts can coordinate national response strategies, the impact of COVID-19 varies by state, city, county, village, and town. Local and state health officials have the best understanding of how the virus is impacting their immediate community, the level of community spread, community-specific risks, and who the community will trust to provide public health information. They use that understanding to adapt national guidelines for their communities.

U.S. response + infection rate

Why has the response in the U.S. been so poor? Why was the CDC unprepared for this crisis?

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the impact of chronic underfunding of America’s public health and emergency preparedness systems. Only five states serve over 50 percent of their populations with a comprehensive public health system. More than 56,000 local public health jobs were eliminated between 2008 and 2017 — nearly one-quarter of the workforce. And in 2018, the White House Office of Global Pandemics was eliminated, leaving the country less prepared for pandemics like COVID-19. This chronic under funding has real consequences, as we’re learning now with health departments struggling to respond to the biggest public health crisis in a century with outdated technologies and inadequate staffing levels. Building and maintaining a public health system capable of effectively protecting and promoting health requires a significant increase in funding. This would be a wise investment considering the much higher costs of responding to uncontrolled epidemics.

How have other countries been able to significantly reduce their COVID-19 cases, and could those tactics be applied in the U.S.?

While COVID-19 has affected some countries more than others, there are places like South Korea and Taiwan that have been able to significantly reduce their surge in cases for a variety of reasons. Those governments took action early; made testing widely available; effectively implemented isolation and quarantine practices, with careful monitoring for compliance and assistance with social and economic supports; and reinforced the importance of social distancing and mask-wearing. In the U.S., some of these steps would be more difficult than others because of cultural and legal differences and resource availability, but many are being advanced here as well. We continue to urge the public to wear face masks and practice social distancing rules outside the home. And we continue to advocate for increased access to reliable testing with quick turn-around time for results and for efficient case finding and contact tracing.