Public health experts should always be consulted and listened to during a pandemic. But their advice is informed opinion, not holy writ. Often it is sensible. Occasionally it is simply too extreme.
A startling example of the latter phenomenon occurred earlier this month.
Even as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was preparing to acknowledge that vaccinated adults have almost no risk of getting seriously ill and meanwhile pose an extremely small risk of infecting others — and therefore need not wear masks in most indoor settings — hundreds of epidemiologists were offering a starkly different conclusion to The New York Times.
In an informal survey of 723 epidemiologists, the newspaper conducted from late April to May 10 — just days before President Joe Biden would go before cameras to announce the CDC’s new mask-wearing guidelines — a near consensus of those experts (80%) declared that Americans would have to wear masks in public indoor settings for at least another year.
Only 5% thought mask mandates could be lifted by this summer, while a majority believed masks indoors would be necessary for “more than a year” or “from now on, in certain situations.”
In other words, many of these experts thought we should have to wear masks indoors indefinitely! How bizarre. How dystopian. And yet the survey respondents were not deliberately provocative cranks. They were intelligent, highly educated experts in the spread of diseases and their control. Their radically restrictive public policy advice is simply what you tend to get from a group focused obsessively on a single problem — reducing risk — without reference to all other factors at play.
The survey results offer a vivid reminder of why public policy should be informed by science but not dictated by scientists — or any other single-minded group. Politicians across America have attempted to obscure this fact during the pandemic because it was convenient for them to insist that every move they made, no matter how controversial, was driven purely by scientific data. But of course, this was fiction. They regularly permitted social, economic and political factors to influence their pandemic decisions — as they should have.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis clearly irritated public health officials in November when he refused to order another major lockdown despite surging cases and again in late December when he surprised them with an order allowing a resumption of limited indoor dining. I think he was right on both counts, given the stress on the public from previous months of sacrifice, but an exclusive focus on suppressing risk might have led to opposite decisions.
Not that any reasonable, risk-based justification exists for wearing masks indoors indefinitely for vaccinated Americans. Indeed, such a policy is almost a caricature of risk avoidance. But then we have become familiar with such caricatures during the pandemic: perhaps the most bizarre being the frequent sight of joggers and cyclists wearing masks while exercising in sparsely populated public parks.
Never mind that the small — indeed minuscule — risk of the novel coronavirus transmission outdoors, absent crowds, has been well-publicized for many months. Many people simply refuse to believe it — or are intent on sending some sort of self-flagellating message. And yet The New York Times’ David Leonhardt recently summed up the relevant data: “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.”
If you are vaccinated, of course, outdoor masking becomes even more pointless.
I actually expected the indoor mask mandate in Colorado to continue through May or early June until every adult who wanted a vaccination had one. At that point the rationale for collective action to protect our fellow citizens would have totally evaporated. The remaining pool of unvaccinated adults — mostly (although not exclusively) the result of ideological folly or social inertia — would just have to take their chances. Personal responsibility, anyone?
But to think that an overwhelming majority of epidemiologists would have kept masks on us for another year or two or three is simply chilling — and a lesson we shouldn’t forget.
Contact Vincent Carroll at [email protected]