The Morning Jolt

Politics & Policy

Biden’s Unhelpful Mask Stance

President-elect Joe Biden holds up a face mask as he speaks about the U.S. economy following a briefing with economic advisers in Wilmington, Del., November 16, 2020. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

On the menu today: Joe Biden brings his own problems to the national stage, declaring that he wants Americans to wear masks until the end of his first 100 days in office — well after the 100 million most vulnerable Americans will be vaccinated! — and warns that the nation’s death toll from the pandemic will double in a month.

Joe Biden Wants You to Wear a Mask until the End of April

This newsletter has been particularly critical of President Trump, his lawyers, and his allies in recent days. The inauguration of Joe Biden next month will mark the end of one set of problems . . . and the beginning of another set of problems:

President-elect Joe Biden told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Thursday that he will ask Americans to wear masks for the first 100 days after he takes office, in a sign of how Biden’s approach to the virus will be dramatically different from President Donald Trump’s response.

“Just 100 days to mask, not forever. One hundred days. And I think we’ll see a significant reduction,” Biden said for the first time in the interview with Tapper.

Biden constantly reassures us that when it comes to the coronavirus, he will only “follow the science.” It’s amazing how “the science” decided that the date masks will no longer be needed perfectly aligns with his symbolic 100th day in office. What a coincidence!

In the grand scheme of the national and international battle against SARS-CoV-2, the people who refuse to wear masks are only a small part of the problem. The folks who refuse to wear masks get a lot of attention, scrutiny, and criticism, but they represent a small slice of the country.

In late October, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a survey that found self-reported use of face masks increased from 78 percent in April, to 83 percent in May, and reached 89 percent in June. Even if people are exaggerating how often or how well they wear a mask, only about ten percent of Americans were willing to say: “No, I don’t wear a mask.” Around that same time, a HealthDay/Harris survey found 93 percent of Americans said they sometimes, often, or always wear a mask or face covering when they leave their home and are unable to socially distance — and of that amount, 72 percent said they always do so. A National Geographic and Morning Consult poll from earlier in the month found similar results.

People may not always be perfectly honest with pollsters, but we can see the evidence every time we go to the grocery store, or doctor’s office, or anywhere else we go. By any available measure, a solid and perhaps overwhelming majority of Americans regularly wear their masks indoors. (Anecdotally, I’d say I see fewer people wearing it below their nose, too.) A handful of conflicts about wearing masks in public places have gone viral on social media, creating the perception that these clashes are ubiquitous. How many times have you shopped for groceries this year? And how many times have you seen someone making a scene over refusing to wear a mask?

Despite the fact that a large majority is wearing masks in public, cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are up fairly dramatically since late October. The lesson of this is not, as some would suggest, that masks do no good. Mask opponents will often argue that because the virus is about one micrometer wide, and the holes in woven cloth are five to 200 micrometers wide, cloth masks can’t stop the virus from going out or coming in. But viruses rarely float around all by themselves; they’re in particles and droplets — and those particles are anywhere from 100 to 1,000 micrometers. The aerodynamics of droplets are as you would probably expect — the heavier they are (carrying more virus), the quicker they descend towards the ground after being expelled. If you’re within three feet of someone coughing, you’re going to get hit by about 65 percent of the droplets. If you’re six feet away from someone coughing, the risk of infection is significantly lessened, but not completely eliminated. The more they cough, the more likely it is that at least some particles reach six feet away. Also note that everything from air currents, humidity, and the height of the person coughing can be factors in how far the droplets go.

Masks can’t give you perfect protection, just as bulletproof vests can’t give cops perfect protection. But cops wear them anyway because it increases their odds of survival.

New cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are up dramatically since late October, but there is no reason to think that is because Americans stopped wearing their masks in significant numbers. So, what changed since late October? In most of the country, the weather got colder. People are spending more time indoors. Lots of Americans don’t have big houses and yards, meaning they’re living in close quarters. Those who live in apartment buildings are sharing hallways, elevators, stairwells, lobbies, and common areas.

And don’t forget the millions of Americans who do not control their housing and living situation — long-term care facilities, nursing homes, homeless shelters, and detention centers.

There is this enormous appetite to moralize the virus — to contend that the people who catch it must have somehow been reckless, refused to wear a mask, didn’t practice precautionary measures, or live in a state with a bad governor with bad policies. Social media is still full of people who believe that Florida governor Ron DeSantis is somehow a uniquely terrible governor who inflicted unimaginable suffering in his state. Right now, Florida ranks 16th in deaths per million residents and 24th in cases per million residents. (When we look at the total number of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, we should keep in mind that states with bigger populations are going to have higher numbers. Of the ten states with the most deaths from the virus, nine rank among the country’s ten most populated, and the one that doesn’t, Massachusetts, ranks 15th.)

The data do not support the argument that one party’s governors are doing a good job and the other party’s governors are doing a bad job. The worst state for deaths per million residents is New Jersey, with 1,953, and New York is not too far behind, at 1,790. The states with the fewest deaths per million residents are Maine (164) and Vermont (120). The worst state for cases per million residents is North Dakota with an astounding 106,428, and not too far behind them is South Dakota with 94,215. The best are again Maine and Vermont, with Hawaii and New Hampshire behind those two — suggesting that the states handing it best are small, largely rural, and don’t have big cities and major travel hubs.

Most people who catch the virus did not take any particularly foolish or reckless actions. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the precautions they usually take weren’t in place in that particular circumstance. Remember, roughly 40 percent of people are asymptomatic — so they may well have interacted with someone who didn’t seem sick at all, and who was silently carrying and spreading the virus. There’s not much point in wagging our fingers at people who caught it; the priority is to make sure they pull through it okay.

One hundred days from Biden’s inauguration will be April 29, 2021. There is a good chance that by Saint Patrick’s Day, Biden’s mask edict will look heavy-handed and superfluous. With each passing month in 2021, an increasing percentage of Americans will be vaccinated. Dr. Moncef Slaoui, who is directing Operation Warp Speed, thinks that 100 million Americans — mainly those most vulnerable to the virus — may be vaccinated by the end of February. By April, the vaccine will be available to those at lowest risk, and those with no particular health issues or vulnerabilities under age 65.

Biden also said in a separate appearance yesterday: “Christmas is going to be a lot harder. I don’t want to scare anybody here, but understand the facts — we’re likely to lose another 250,000 people dead between now and January. You hear me?”

I am all for taking the virus seriously, but there is such a thing as fearmongering, and precision counts in public statements about a topic as serious as this. The United States suffered about 3,000 deaths from the coronavirus yesterday. There are 27 days left in this awful year. If we lose 3,000 people per day for 27 days, we will see 81,000 deaths. That will be terrible, but that will not be “another 250,000 by January.” If we are generous and assume Biden meant the end of January, another 3,000 deaths for another 31 days would be 174,000 deaths — still well short of the 250,000 that Biden predicted.

“It’s going to disappear one day, like a miracle” is unforgivably unrealistically optimistic. “Our national death toll will nearly double in a month” is infuriatingly unrealistically pessimistic.

ADDENDUM: Thanks to all who are purchasing, reading, and reviewing Hunting Four Horsemen. The Amazon reviews remain (almost) entirely positive, and I particularly liked this assessment from Henry:

It could be viewed as Travel Porn — these great characters go to places I have never even heard about. Action doesn’t stop and as another reviewer stated, it has real people dealing in a real world with real emotions. The pandemic affects us all different. There are those moments where they give each other hell in their face, but speak of them as angels behind their back.

In Hunting Four Horsemen, my characters have been through everything we’re going through now, and they’re not broken by it, but the ordeal of the pandemic has worn on them. They were confronted with a massive, global problem that made them feel helpless for a long stretch, and they’re not used to being in that situation. The pandemic is over, and life is getting back to normal, but they’re still struggling to make sense of why their lives had to be turned upside down for so long — along with the loss of some people dear to them — all because a virus emerged from some far-off city most people had never heard of before January 2020. Most of the characters are still snarky, sarcastic, and making funny references to pop culture, but it’s probably increasingly clear how much the protagonists use that as a coping mechanism for the problems they face.

If there’s a particular challenge when I write books like these, it’s the desire to do a lot at once and balance it all. It’s a thriller, so the plot has to keep moving, and there needs to be a sense of building tension — the ticking clock. The characters can be archetypes but hopefully not cliches; they’re hopefully unusual and surprising and multifaceted. I usually have gobs of research about real-world places and events that I want to put in and not make it seem like a giant exposition dump. I want to “world-build” and create a sense that these characters have a history that began well before the first word of the first chapter and show that the fictional world they inhabit is slightly different from the real world we live in — while simultaneously seeming realistic and never tripping the reader’s “oh, that would never happen” radar. I probably write humorous observations and snappy patter the best and action scenes the worst, which is usually the opposite in the thriller genre.

Guys like Brad Thor, Michael Connelly, Daniel Silva, and Matthew Betley make it look effortless.

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