Tapper to Fauci: A new study says three feet of distancing is enough for schools. So why does the CDC still say six feet?

You know the answer. It’s the same answer to the question, “Why does the CDC continue to recommend that vaccinated people not travel even though their risk of infecting others is small, especially when they’re wearing masks?” The agency is hyper-cautious, partly as a matter of institutional and disciplinary culture and partly because they’ve treated containment of the virus as their paramount goal — even in environments like schools where the risk is small and keeping kids at home is itself destined to have deleterious health effects on them.

They’re taking too long to make sensible adjustments to their guidance. And all Fauci can say when he’s inevitably pressed on this point by Tapper is the same thing he’s said about loosening the guidance for vaccinated people: It’s going to happen. Soon!

Just … not yet. Watch, then read on.

Tapper’s right about the new study showing students are no more likely to be infected at three feet of distance than at six feet. That study’s authors have an op-ed in WaPo today detailing their findings and reminding fellow experts that keeping schools closed also exacts its own costs on children.

We wanted to see whether the six-feet guidelines are really necessary for public health. Our multidisciplinary team of researchers compared the case rates of SARS-CoV-2 among students and staff participating in in-person learning between districts that required three feet and those requiring six feet of distancing between students. We examined the 16-week period after schools reopened this fall across Massachusetts, where there is a universal masking mandate, among various other mitigation requirements, including hand-hygiene programs, symptom screens, stay-home-when sick policies and opening windows. Our statewide study found that case rates were similar among students and staff in both types of districts; the extra three feet made no difference in terms of reported cases of viral infections. We also found that coronavirus rates among students and staff alike (at both distances) were lower than rates in the corresponding communities, suggesting that schools that require masks are a safe place for students and school staff.

The “three feet vs. six feet” debate matters a lot because it determines how many students schools in a given district are able to return to class. “Six-foot, strict social distancing in most districts means you can’t bring everyone back into the building, and you will be in some sort of remote learning … it’s ginning up to becoming one of the major flash points,” said one epidemiologist to WaPo last week. The WHO believes three feet of distance between students is safe, as does the American Academy of Pediatrics. In fact, the CDC’s six-foot rule is based on … nothing much at all, really:

The six-foot distancing guideline that has been dogma in the United States for a year is rooted in research that began in the 19th century on how far droplets emitted by sneezes and coughs flew before falling. Many scientists say it is outdated. They now know those larger droplets are well-blocked by masks — but also that the coronavirus spreads via smaller aerosol droplets that can linger in the air, travel much farther and leak to varying degrees from the sides of many masks.

Six feet “at this point is not really relevant for aerosols, which behave like cigarette smoke,” Marr said. “The farther the better, but six feet isn’t this bright dividing line.”

The NFL closely studied infections among its personnel last season and confirmed that of course the aerosolized virus can travel farther than six feet, especially in cramped, poorly ventilated quarters. So if the CDC’s current recommendation were designed to prevent infection altogether, it’s not aggressive enough. But it’s not designed to do that; it’s simply an antiquated rule of thumb they’re relying on out of caution even though the newest data suggests that three feet will work just fine. “Six feet doesn’t protect teachers,” public-health expert Ashish Jha tweeted recently, “but it does keep kids out of school.” His advice to make schools safe: Masks, maximum ventilation, regular testing, and of course vaccinations for staff. Drawing bright lines on distancing among students is a silly barrier, particularly knowing how kids are destined to break those rules.

Some states already allow school districts to operate with three feet of distancing between kids. Last summer one district consulted on its policy with a then-local expert, who told them that three feet of distance between students was fine. You may recognize her name:

After she became CDC chief, Walensky explained that that recommendation was based on the low rates of infection circulating in the community last summer, after the initial wave of COVID had receded. But the current national positivity rate in the U.S. is close to its lowest point of the entire pandemic right now. So why shouldn’t the national standard also shift to three feet?

The annoying thing about the Fauci clip is that he’s all but promising that the guidance will change. He knows that three feet is as safe as six given the state of the data; Walensky doubtless knows it too, per her comments last summer. But bureaucracies are what they are. His answer to Tapper is essentially, “These things happen according to a particular process,” without justifying why the slow pace of the process in this case is more important than getting kids back into class urgently. He’d probably say it’s a matter of protecting the public’s trust in the institution, not wanting to rush scientific judgments due to political pressure, but that runs up against Scott Gottlieb’s warnings recently that the CDC shouldn’t be so cautious in common-sense guidance that the public simply starts tuning it out. Which, to a degree, it already has in this case or else some schools in Massachusetts wouldn’t already be operating with three feet of distance instead of six, right?