COVID source callout: CDC infection control committee may roll back protections

A little-known CDC advisory committee is suddenly in the public spotlight, as it considers recommending fewer safety measures to reduce infection in hospitals and other healthcare settings. Despite major pushback at a recent meeting, it’s unclear whether this committee will actually live up to its infection control duties.

The Healthcare Infection Control Practices Advisory Committee, or HICPAC, is a group of experts that advises the CDC on infectious disease safety measures in healthcare settings. It develops guidance that is rigorously followed across U.S. facilities, and the guidance is due for an update this year—for the first time since COVID-19 hit.

In the last three years, healthcare and public health workers have learned a lot about the importance of masks and clean air for reducing respiratory disease risk. You might think that HICPAC would acknowledge this in its updated guidance, calling for hospitals to use high-quality masks and ventilation. Instead, however, HICPAC’s guidance disregards the last three years of airborne virus research, suggesting for example that N95s aren’t more protective than surgical masks and that masking is only needed when a disease is spreading very widely.

These guidelines could have massive implications for the healthcare system. Many high-risk people are already hesitant to go to the doctor, in a time when mask requirements in these settings have largely been lifted. COVID-19 is spreading widely in these settings, limited data suggest. The new guidelines, if adopted, would extend the current COVID-19 “normal” to many other diseases, from seasonal flu to new viruses that may emerge.

Naturally, a coalition of better-informed individuals and organizations (healthcare workers, scientists, patients, etc.) are pushing back against HICPAC. At a public meeting this past Tuesday, many attendees spoke against the guidance change, citing health research as well as their own experiences in the last three years. The committee failed to meaningfully acknowledge this criticism; in fact, it cut off the public comment period after just 40 minutes, leaving many attendees unable to share their feedback.

Transparency concerns about HICPAC—which doesn’t usually share public updates or livestream its meetings—add to concerns about the committee’s guidance decisions. But the pressure is on for HICPAC to respond to its critics, improve its new guidance, and live up to its title.

Further reading and how to get involved:

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