Even the President is no longer complying with these Covid theatrics
The Covid-19 pandemic has made it acceptable to spend inordinate amounts of time hand-wringing about the possibility of getting infected with something, somehow, somewhere. Last winter, there were sensationalised headlines about an impending “tripledemic”, although it never materialised. This year, we received a dire warning that “Covid did not take a summer vacation” — except that hospitalisations have remained near an all-time low.
With this unwarranted media frenzy comes the dusting off of the same old strategies: mask mandates and forced isolation, with concomitant absences from class and work, which are regularly foisted upon low-risk populations, predominantly students and health care workers.
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Morris Brown College in Atlanta has brought back mandatory masking for its students, and quite a few hospital systems are now reinstating mask requirements for their staff. Some large state universities such as University of Michigan and University of Maryland are banishing students from campus if they test positive. In Montgomery County, Maryland, some kindergarteners in public schools are required to don masks due to an “outbreak” in their class, with the possibility of asymptomatic testing and social distancing on the table.
Well over halfway through 2023, how can this be?
It’s happening because we never successfully cut the head off the dragon. That is, getting policymakers, including the CDC, to admit out loud that masks and many other mitigation efforts were pointless. Mandates went away because cases and hospitalisation rates were low, not because those who imposed them stopped believing in them. In Oregon, the state health authority believes in masks so much that it issued a permanent statewide indoor mask mandate, which is merely suspended when cases are low and can be reinstated when cases rise.
We and others have written for this magazine, and elsewhere, debunking these “mitigation strategies” for the useless theatre that they are. As for masks, Cochrane, a global independent network of health researchers and professionals, conducted a meta-analysis in early 2023 of 17 randomised controlled trials and concluded that “[w]earing masks in the community probably makes little or no difference […] compared to not wearing masks.”
This very large comprehensive study should have sealed the fate of mask recommendations once and for all but, perplexingly, America’s top health leaders have decided instead to dismiss the results. Both former CDC director Rochelle Walensky and former NIAID director Anthony Fauci were quick to minimise them.
The unwillingness to accept defeat in the mitigation wars may be due to public health’s recently ramped-up compulsion to just “do something”. They must have forgotten the old medical school adage: “don’t just do something; stand there”, meaning that one shouldn’t impose useless treatments and interventions just for the sake of it.
There is one prominent American, however, who appears unwilling to continue complying with the Covid theatre. President Biden, 80 years old and recently exposed to Covid, is supposed to wear a mask for 10 days, according to the current CDC guidance. Nevertheless, he said at a recent press conference, mask in hand, “they keep telling me, because this has to be 10 days or something, I’ve got to keep wearing it. But don’t tell them I didn’t have it on when I walked in.”
If the President can resist the urge to “do something” about Covid, surely the rest of America’s policymakers can, too. The CDC should advise what is obvious to everyone else: stay home if you feel sick. Go out when you feel better. That would be doing something.
Dr Margery Smelkinson is an infectious-disease scientist whose research has focused on influenza and SARS-CoV-2
Dr Leslie Bienen works in health care policy