The Morning Jolt

Health Care

Few of Our COVID-19 Policies Make Any Sense

A shopper passes a social-distancing sign at Coastal Grand Mall on Black Friday in Myrtle Beach, S.C., November 27, 2020. (Micah Green/Reuters)

On the menu today: a long look at the government’s contradictory and sometimes nonsensical rules, laws, and policies in place to stem the spread of COVID-19, as President Biden — who promised to “shut down the virus” last fall — now promises Americans a “new strategy” against the pandemic. Meanwhile, the Chinese government lets slip that it expect its people to still be threatened by the virus six months from now.

Oh, and because this should never be forgotten, no matter what else is going on in the news: At least one hundred American citizens, an unknown but considerable number of U.S. green-card holders, and more than 100,000 Afghan allies who qualified for Special Immigrant Visas remain trapped in Afghanistan, despite the president’s promise that, “If there’s American citizens left, we’re gonna stay to get them all out.”

The Government’s Contradictory COVID Restrictions

Tomorrow, President Biden is scheduled to lay out “a new strategy” to stop the spread of COVID-19, and the White House promises the plan will include “boosting vaccinations.”

On social media, the most popular sport is to find some celebrity, professional athlete, or gadfly who refuses to get vaccinated, blame them for the fact that the pandemic hasn’t ended, and lament that we’re such a terrible country full of idiots who refuse to get vaccinated. It’s really easy to forget the fact that 92.4 percent of America’s seniors have at least one shot, 75 percent of all American adults have at least one shot, and more than 73 percent of all eligible Americans have at least one shot. When you see the glum statement that “only 62.5 percent of Americans have one shot,” that figure includes the roughly 50 million American children age eleven and younger who can’t get vaccinated yet.

Biden is expected to encourage employers to enact vaccine mandates for employees . . . just like he did a little more than two weeks ago. The president seems to think we’re just one more round of vaccine mandates from putting this pandemic behind us — as if the country hasn’t spent all of this year making every possible effort to persuade the reluctant, offering everything from prizes to scholarships to discounts on game and fishing licenses.

It’s a shame that Biden’s “new strategy” appears to be the same old strategy as before, just louder. If he and his team really stopped and examined the nation’s fight against the virus, they would find that a whole lot of policies at the state, local, campus, and school-district levels just don’t make a lot of sense — and that this confusing, contradictory gobbledygook makes people throw up their hands and just trust their own instincts:

  • Oregon still requires fully vaccinated citizens to wear masks outdoors. Now, even aside from the fact that transmission of the virus outdoors is exceptionally rare, every time a policy doesn’t distinguish between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated, it is sending the subtle, inadvertent signal that getting vaccinated doesn’t actually change anything.
  • In Hawaii, bars and restaurants must close by 10 p.m. starting next week, because apparently the local officials believe this virus is like a vampire and is most active at night. Keep in mind, just under 75 percent of all Hawaiians have received at least one shot of a vaccine, which is one of the best rates in the country.
  • At the University of Michigan, 92 percent of students and 90 percent of faculty are fully vaccinated, and masks are required indoors, spurring administrators to contend that “perhaps the safest place to be on campus this fall will be in the classroom.” But more than 700 faculty and graduate-student instructors think that isn’t enough, and signed a petition calling for “required testing twice a week, allowing six feet of space between each person in a room and a mandatory 14-day quarantine policy for vaccinated close contacts of positive cases.” Let me spell it out for you: There is absolutely no reason that two people who are vaccinated and wearing masks need to be six feet apart. If people are calling for vaccinated and masked individuals to social distance, they are sending the subtle, inadvertent signal that wearing masks doesn’t actually do any good.
  • At Cornell University, students who do not test positive for COVID-19 are still required to quarantine for seven days if they have been exposed to someone who did have COVID-19. Meanwhile, some of those same students cannot get a test to see if they have COVID-19.
  • Not too far from my neck of the woods, the public-school system in Montgomery County, Md., requires all students who may have been exposed to a student who tests positive for COVID-19 to quarantine for ten days. But according to parents, “A student who shows symptoms similar to those of COVID-19, at their school or in a classroom, isn’t being tested before the school district decides to send everyone who may have been exposed to that student — home, to quarantine.” There’s no easy way to determine whether a kid with the sniffles, a cough, or a fever has a summer cold or COVID-19, and so apparently the de facto policy is to send everyone home if anyone in the class shows any sign of sickness at all. More sensibly, in my neck of the woods, Fairfax County Public Schools realized that if a fully vaccinated teenager who was in close contact with an infected person has no symptoms, there’s no need to keep them out of school.
  • You may have noticed the theme in the above reports that sorting out who has COVID-19 and who doesn’t is hindered by a lack of tests. Somehow, nearly two years into this pandemic, we still don’t have enough tests in many parts of the country. Pediatricians in Nashville say they don’t have enough tests. Labs in central Kentucky say they’ve run out of the rapid tests. The public-school system in Pasadena, Calif., unveiled a new weekly testing regimen for all staff — but it can’t find enough tests for everyone. In my neck of the woods, you can’t get a test unless you have symptoms.
  • In Jackson County, N.C., the public-school system is barring visitors from school grounds — never mind if the person is vaccinated, never mind if the person is wearing a mask. Similarly, a hospital chain in Michigan is limiting visitors to patients — whether or not they’re vaccinated, whether or not they’re masked.
  • Starting tomorrow, the Pentagon will move to “Health Protection Condition Bravo Plus,” which, among other things, declares that, “Organizations are expected to maintain occupancy rates at less than 40 percent of normal occupancy in workspaces.”
  • On August 18, the FDA and CDC announced that, “We conclude that a booster shot will be needed to maximize vaccine-induced protection and prolong its durability.” (This announcement meant that the definition of “fully vaccinated” is now blurred. You’re fully vaccinated for eight months after your second shot, but nine months after it, you’re back to partially vaccinated.) President Biden declared, “Just remember as a simple rule, eight months after your second shot, get a booster shot.” Except now we learn that, “Top federal health officials have told the White House to scale back a plan to offer coronavirus booster shots to the general public this month, saying that regulators need more time to collect and review all the necessary data.” That seems like the sort of thing that should be worked out before the president goes on television and tells Americans to go out and get a third shot. Quite a few Americans — an estimated 1.3 million — have already gone out and gotten the third shot and not waited for government say-so.
  • Yesterday, I laid out how our current pandemic-driven restrictions limiting who can legally enter the country make no sense — based on case rates, vaccination rates, or prioritizing citizens of countries that are our allies. The best way to summarize it is that shortly before Joe Biden became president, the United Kingdom, continental Europe, Ireland, Brazil, and South Africa had scary variants, and thus we made it much more difficult for citizens of those countries to enter the U.S. (China, India, and Iran had already been on the list.) Of course, those scary variants have now spread to lots of other countries, and in the intervening months many countries have vaccinated many citizens, but our entry restrictions seem frozen in amber from January.

My sons are currently wearing masks in class. Is that ideal? Hell no. Are they functioning with masks on? Yes, and if the mask policy keeps nervous-nellie parents from freaking out and prevents schools from panicking and going back to “virtual learning,” fine. I’d like the kids to be able to enjoy a day with pre-pandemic normalcy and see each other’s faces, but we need schools to be operating on a normal schedule, five days a week, to undo the egregious damage of distance learning, which was far too often a debacle. If your child thrived over the past two years, terrific. But most kids are much better off interacting with their teachers and their peers, even if everyone’s wearing a mask.

As I laid out in my most recent magazine article that pleased absolutely no one, masks do some good but aren’t perfect, and it is fair to question whether cloth masks are really that effective against the more-contagious Delta variant. But for all of the parental concern, it’s worth keeping in mind that all of the available data, as laid out and analyzed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, show that COVID-19 is a minor threat to our children. That’s not quite a zero threat, but if your child catches COVID-19, your child will probably be fine:

As of September 2, over 5 million children have tested positive for COVID-19 since the onset of the pandemic. Among states reporting, children ranged from 1.6 percent to 4.1 percent of the states’ total cumulated hospitalizations, and 0.1 percent to 1.9 percent of all their child COVID-19 cases resulted in hospitalization. Among states reporting, children were 0.00 percent to 0.27 percent of all COVID-19 deaths, and 7 states reported zero child deaths. In states reporting, 0.00 percent to 0.03 percent of all child COVID-19 cases resulted in death.

Public-health professors Joseph G. Allen and Helen Jenkins made a terrific point in a New York Times op-ed last week, declaring that, “Any organization setting a mask mandate at this point in the pandemic in the United States must pair that mandate with an offramp plan. Sleepwalking into indefinite masking is not in anyone’s interests and can increase distrust after an already very difficult year.”

At the heart of that op-ed were questions like: Just what are we trying to do here? What is our ultimate goal? If President Biden’s address tomorrow tackles those big questions, the country will be better off. The hyper-contagiousness of the Delta variant means that reaching herd immunity is going to require an extremely high percentage of the population to have the ability to quickly fight off the virus, either through vaccination or previous exposure to the virus. (The Delta variant is not quite as contagious as chicken pox, but it’s still plenty contagious.) If you’re vulnerable, getting up there in years, or have a comorbidity, you should get yourself vaccinated ASAP. If you’re young and healthy, you should still get vaccinated — but if you choose otherwise, you accept the risks to your own health.

If you’re vaccinated, you don’t do yourself much good to spend a lot of time fuming over those who refuse to get vaccinated. Those folks will run into the Delta variant sooner or later, and one of three things will happen. If they’ve had a previous COVID-19 infection, their experienced immune systems will probably give them the ability to fight it off. Or their immune system will fight it off, even without a past run-in with COVID-19. Or they’ll die. Their decision is not something you can control.

ADDENDUM: Bloomberg reports that the Chinese government’s pandemic provisions for their national games, coming up next week, are a test-drive for the pandemic restrictions that Beijing expects to have in place for the 2022 Winter Olympics, which are scheduled to begin February 4, 2022.

So the Chinese government expects COVID-19 to still be a major threat in February 2022, huh?

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