The Morning Jolt

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The Truth about Wearing Masks

A New York Police Department officer wears a protective mask during the coronavirus outbreak in New York City, March 20, 2020. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

On the menu today: a report that the CDC might want us to start wearing masks after all, some encouraging signs about America’s fevers from a thermometer system that the NSA would envy, how police ought to approach the issue of defiant religious gatherings during a pandemic, and a recent Morning Jolt reaches a milestone.

Are We About to Be Urged to Start Wearing Masks?

Saturday, Dr. Matt McCarthy, an assistant professor at the medical school of Cornell University, tweeted, “CDC guidance on masks expected to change in next 10 days. Americans will be advised to wear masks in everyday life. Current recommendation is for high-risk groups only.”

But later that day, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention responded to his tweet, appearing to shoot down that idea. “CDC does not have updated guidance scheduled to come out on this topic.” They referred to the current guidance, which is:

If you are sick: You should wear a facemask, if available, when you are around other people (including before you enter a healthcare provider’s office).

If you are caring for others: If the person who is sick is not able to wear a facemask (for example, because it causes trouble breathing), then as their caregiver, you should wear a facemask when in the same room with them. Visitors, other than caregivers, are not recommended.

Note: During a public health emergency, facemasks may be reserved for healthcare workers. You may need to improvise a facemask using a scarf or bandana.

But this morning, the Washington Post reports the same thing McCarthy claimed:

Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are considering altering the official guidance to encourage people to take measures to cover their faces amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to a federal official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because it is an ongoing matter of internal discussion and nothing has been finalized.

CDC guidance on masks remains under development, the federal official said. The official said the new guidance would make clear that the general public should not use medical masks — including surgical and N95 masks — that are in desperately short supply and needed by health-care workers.

Instead, the recommendation under consideration calls for using do-it-yourself cloth coverings, according to a second official who shared that thinking on a personal Facebook account. It would be a way to help “flatten the curve,” the official noted.

I realize the CDC is dealing with an unprecedented situation, and we’re still learning about this virus. But either masks help or they don’t; if they don’t help at all, it doesn’t make sense that they would be needed by health-care workers. (I’m reminded of the head miner confronting the officials in the HBO miniseries Chernobyl, scoffing at a not-so-persuasive claim that the masks would offer protection from inhaling radioactive dust. “If these worked, you would be wearing them.”)

There are a lot of problems with the concept of the “noble lie,” and a big one is that it makes it harder for the truth to come out later — and once it does, the authority’s credibility is damaged. If you tell the public that masks don’t work because you don’t want them running out and buying them and hoarding them, some people are not going to believe you if you come back with a different message later. If the CDC wants people to start wearing masks, they’re going to have to persuade a chunk of the public that will instinctively say, “Why should I wear one? I heard those things don’t work.”

Back in late February, Vox reported “most health experts said there’s no good evidence to support the use of face masks for preventing this disease in the general population,” and quoted one professor as saying, “wearing a mask can also appear ‘overly alarmist.’”

Because we sure as heck didn’t want people seeming alarmist about the coronavirus back in late February, now did we?

America Is Having Fewer Fevers. Is That a Sign We’re Winning?

Maybe we’re starting to bend the curve. Maybe.

Kinsa Health produces Internet-connected thermometers and is collecting and analyzing all of that data coming in every day. It’s fascinating, as long as you’re okay with your thermometer doing the kind of consistent surveillance of the details of American lives that we usually associate with, say, the NSA.

To identify clusters of coronavirus infections, Kinsa recently adapted its software to detect spikes of “atypical fever” that do not correlate with historical flu patterns and are likely attributable to the coronavirus.

As of noon Wednesday, the company’s live map showed fevers holding steady or dropping almost universally across the country, with two prominent exceptions . . . By Friday morning, fevers in every county in the country were on a downward trend, depicted in four shades of blue on the map . . .

As of Monday morning, more than three-quarters of the country was deep blue. A separate display of the collective national fever trend, which had spiked upward to a peak on March 17, had fallen so far that it was actually below the band showing historical flu fever trends — which meant that the lockdown has cut not only Covid-19 transmission but flu transmission, too.

Those exceptions were a broad swathe of New Mexico and a ring of Louisiana parishes surrounding New Orleans.

One catch: if you’re dealing with a severe case of the coronavirus, are you using a Kinsa thermometer, or is the hospital using some other one? In other words, is the Kinsa data a good way to measure the milder cases?

Let’s Avoid Unneeded Confrontations with Religious Communities during This Crisis, Okay?

The silver lining to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office arresting Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne in Florida is that the conflict did not escalate to a physical altercation. Local authorities really, really, really don’t want the River at Tampa Bay Church to hold services that continue to involve large groups of people getting together and remaining close together, in violation of the CDC’s “social distancing” recommendations.

If you want to persuade someone, you first have to see the world through their eyes, and understand what drives them, what motivates them, and what they value. The moment you turn it into a contest of wills, people dig in their heels. If law enforcement has someone religious in the ranks, that might be the right person to persuade someone that a particular action is consistent with their religious principles. The Hillsborough authorities are at least trying to assure Christian citizens that temporarily suspending services is consistent with their religious values.

That’s why Howard-Browne was arrested Monday on misdemeanor charges of unlawful assembly and violating quarantine orders during a public health emergency, said Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister.

‘Because of the reckless disregard of public safety and after repeated requests and warnings, I worked with our state attorney, Andrew Warren, to obtain a warrant for unlawful assembly and violation of public health emergency rules, both of which are second degree misdemeanors,’ Chronister said. “Our goal here is not to stop anyone from worshiping, but the safety and well-being of our community must always come first.”

Chronister and Warren held a news conference Monday announcing the charges before the pastor was in custody. That day, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases across Florida surged past 5,700.

Warren then took to the lectern and quoted the Bible.

‘I’d remind the good pastor of Mark 12:31, which said there’s no more important commandment than to love thy neighbor as thyself,’ Warren said. ‘Loving your neighbors is protecting them, not jeopardizing their health by exposing them to this deadly virus.’

Hard cases make bad law, and we are in the textbook definition of extreme circumstances. In just about any other situation, the state attempting to restrict, block, or ban gatherings of religious believers would be straight-up unconstitutional, no questions asked.

You don’t have to be a fervent believer to be wary about state officials who deem religious services as a unnecessary luxury during this crisis, but who also insist every Planned Parenthood facility must remain open. New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, who has managed to botch a great many decisions during this crisis, had to go even further and threaten to permanently shut down any religious institution that violates state orders to not hold services. (He doesn’t have that authority.) Yesterday, large numbers of New Yorkers gathered in crowds that violated CDC rules in order to watch the U.S. Navy hospital ship arrive at the pier. The NYPD only offered verbal warnings. While the social distancing rules apply to everyone, religious groups who have a preexisting tense relationship with a nonreligious mayor may fairly wonder if they’re being singled out for particular enforcement.

In a situation such as this, state authorities would be wise to at least try to help the religious communities find alternative arrangements. Here in Virginia, some churches that can find the space are holding “drive-in services,” where families attend in their cars and remain in their vehicles, honking their horns in rejoice. That idea may not work in more urban environments, but you look at a problem differently when you stop seeing the question as, “How can I stop this religious community from gathering?” and instead see it as, “How can I help this religious community find a way to feel a sense of connection that is safe and won’t run afoul of the social-distancing guidelines?”

David Koresh may have been a maniac, but the Branch Davidians didn’t deserve to die for their actions, and had law enforcement understood the belief system of those inside better, maybe that terrible outcome could have been avoided. “While many religious scholars have differing interpretations of the event, they agree that Waco remains the case study on how religious literacy is critical to peacefully enforcing the law in a pluralistic society, whether dealing with apocalyptic groups like the Branch Davidians or the polygamous FLDS.” Living in a free country means allowing people to believe things that the rest of us find nutty; the question is how we figure out a way that functions and abides with the law in a pluralist society.

ADDENDUM: Without going into the specific numbers, I can now say that the timeline of China’s false statements about the coronavirus is the most-read piece I have written at National Review in at least two years, probably much longer.

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