News & Politics

NYT Report: CDC's Outdoor COVID Risk Estimate 'Misleading,' a 'Huge Exaggeration'


Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidelines for mask-wearing, saying vaccinated individuals didn’t need to wear masks in some outdoor situations, but should wear them in others, based on what they claimed was a roughly 10 percent risk of outdoor COVID-19 transmission.

But the CDC’s estimate about the risk of outdoor COVID-19 transmission was exaggerated, according to a bombshell report from the New York Times, which says the risk of COVID-19 transmission is actually less than 1 percent.

“Media organizations repeated the statistic, and it quickly became a standard description of the frequency of outdoor transmission,” noted the New York Times.

“It appears to be based partly on a misclassification of some Covid transmission that actually took place in enclosed spaces,” the report explains. “An even bigger issue is the extreme caution of C.D.C. officials, who picked a benchmark — 10 percent — so high that nobody could reasonably dispute it.”

That benchmark “seems to be a huge exaggeration,” as Dr. Muge Cevik, a virologist at the University of St. Andrews, said. In truth, the share of transmission that has occurred outdoors seems to be below 1 percent and may be below 0.1 percent, multiple epidemiologists told me. The rare outdoor transmission that has happened almost all seems to have involved crowded places or close conversation.

Saying that less than 10 percent of Covid transmission occurs outdoors is akin to saying that sharks attack fewer than 20,000 swimmers a year. (The actual worldwide number is around 150.) It’s both true and deceiving.

How did this happen? Is this the CDC using fear to keep Americans in line? David Leonhardt of the Times chalks it up to the CDC’s struggle to “communicate effectively.”

“C.D.C. officials have placed such a high priority on caution that many Americans are bewildered by the agency’s long list of recommendations,” Leonhardt suggests, but still acknowledges that the CDC’s recommendations “would be more grounded in science if anywhere close to 10 percent of Covid transmission were occurring outdoors. But it is not.”

Even now there is “not a single documented Covid infection anywhere in the world from casual outdoor interactions, such as walking past someone on a street or eating at a nearby table,” Leonhardt notes, which makes the CDC’s recommendations seem ridiculous, not simply over-cautious.

And, naturally, one can’t help but wonder what else has been exaggerated to keep Americans afraid.

Paging Dr. Fauci. 

Paging Dr. Fauci.