This headline is just as criminal as yelling “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater. (You might not remember, but movie theaters are these places people used to go and watch these stories told with pictures that move and have really loud sound and popcorn. Ah, good times…but way too dangerous now)
It’s Italy all over again! Except, no, it’s nothing like that. “Multiple” in this case means two. Two of seventeen. Florida ICUs are at 75% capacity. And the Florida Department of Health has said that the 17,000 new cases are due to expanded testing, and Newsweek didn’t bother to wait for them to comment, likely because an accurate headline wouldn’t scare you at all:
“Increased Florida Hospital Utilization Signals Return to Normal Operations While Testing Capabilities Expand with Expected Results.”
It is fear – not science – that is driving the use of masks in public. It is fear – not science – that is threatening to disassemble our school systems. It is fear – not science – that is the rationale for restrictions on how people choose to live their lives. Meanwhile, you aren’t being given usable information, you aren’t being told anything helpful for how to safely navigate this new world, and the fear is tearing the fabric of society.
One statement at a time:
There is no good data for the use of cloth masks in public, and there never will be.
Here I go again, a dangerous idiot. Who is more dangerous, the one telling you not to feel safe based on completely flawed data (that’s me), or the one pushing ineffective policy that feeds on your fear by telling you something you want to believe?
All I know to do is apologize for the scientific community, because we have let you down. We have always known there are good studies and bad studies, we were even taught how to pick them apart in college and med school. And yet we continue to propagate this utter crap, partly because it gets attention, partly because of politics, and partly because many of the scientists both in and peripheral to healthcare are also scared.
One more time: there is no good data for the use of cloth masks in public, and there never will be.
There are too many variables to know if mandating the use of masks that were never designed to prevent the spread of a virus and which have absolutely no construction specifications or any kind of certification work in the way you are hoping they might work. And yet opinion pieces continue to site “data” as if we know when we really don’t.
Even as I was writing this blog, I found two new studies that claim to prove the effectiveness of masks in all of this, even siting specific numbers. Masks “reduce the daily growth rate by 40%”, which is pretty impressive, since the study was performed primarily using data collected in Jena, Germany, a city with a population a bit over 100,000 and 144 total cases. The other “landmark” study based its findings on curves on graphs of case incidence, as if nothing else could possibly affect rate of infections:
“We quantified the effects of face covering by projecting the number of infections based on the data prior to implementing the use of face masks in Italy on April 6 and NYC on April 17 (Fig. 2A; see Methods). Such projections are reasonable considering the excellent linear correlation for the data prior to the onset of mandated face covering (Fig. 2 B and C and SI Appendix, Fig. S1). Our analysis indicates that face covering reduced the number of infections by over 78,000 in Italy from April 6 to May 9 and by over 66,000 in NYC from April 17 to May 9.”
I am sorry, if I have to explain to you why these are poor models, I am just not going to get through to you. Maybe you are hearing what you want to hear; maybe you are hearing something that helps mitigate your fear. But this is the kind of “science” that is being held up by scientists, the very people you hope to look to for guidance. This is not guidance, this is pandering to sociopolitical opinion, and it’s every bit as destructive as causing a deadly riot.
Look at this study, but you don’t even have to read it. It’s the “landmark” mask study done on hamsters. Now ask yourself this: why would anyone do a mask study on hamsters? Because, as I have said it is (unfortunately) impossible to do a solid study on the use of masks in the general population in regular life.
Think back to what science really is: the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment. There are some guidelines we like to follow to do this right, like having a control group to compare to and designing a study that eliminates confounding variables, so that you don’t mistake the results of one thing for another. It is impossible to do this with masks in the general population in regular life. You simply cannot control for the variables. You just can’t. I am sorry that this doesn’t make you comfortable, but it is true. For one thing, you can’t reliably control human behavior. You also can’t control for the type of mask. You can’t control for the type of exposure, the environment, the weather, the amount of virus, etc. Hell, we don’t even know who has been infected and if they are immune… so many things – so many variables – that you have no idea.
To really do this, you would have to control for these things, but the real deal-breaker is this: you would have to put real people in harm’s way. To test if more people get sick with or without masks, you would have to put people at risk for getting a virus and dying, and that’s not going to work in the modern world. A couple of hundred years ago we might have been able to split a few dozen less desirables into two groups and throw them in with some sick people, some with masks, some without, then count the dead bodies at the end, but we look down on that sort of thing these days.
Which is why they went with hamsters, because you are allowed to put hamsters in harm’s way. But this introduces a few other issues, like the fact that hamsters aren’t people, and even if they can get the very same virus, there are one or two differences about them that might be important. Like the inability to wear masks. Which is why the hamsters didn’t wear masks but were separated by cloth barriers with fans that were supposed to simulate masks. But this doesn’t really simulate wearing a mask, does it? It simulates people living in different rooms separated by cloth barriers with fans blowing on them. And that’s not quite the way most of us live. And hamsters still aren’t the same as people.
But people say wearing masks is better than nothing and it’s not that big an ask, and that entire concept is built on fear, and ignores the fact that it can be worse than nothing, and it does indeed perpetuate fear. People are afraid of a virus and they know it comes from other people so they want to block it from coming out of those other people so that they can feel safe. That’s fear. Fear that is stopping us from re-opening society to save the ones languishing in isolation and poverty, to try to begin the painful process of bridging enormous learning losses and widening educational gaps.
Meanwhile, if we use science, people who need to or just want to would wear a purpose-built mask proven to protect them from harm, regardless of whether the other person has a virus – any virus – or not. (More on that later).
Now let’s turn to schools:
All the data – data that we are just too afraid to believe – shows that young people are largely unaffected and don’t seem to even be vectors for spread. More kids under 20 died from influenza last year than people under 30 have died from COVID19. We keep forgetting influenza, almost like we don’t want to admit how bad it is, because remembering influenza throws into question why we are so upset about COVID, especially in young people, the very people whose lives we are ruining. We have even “updated” all our stats from two years ago. I find the timing of these updates interesting, as they have occurred while everyone is so busy focusing on this new threat that I wonder who had time to devote to this, especially during the deliberate and unconscionable cessation of testing and tracking of influenza, like the old data was more important than current data? And by the way, whoever was tasked with this did a rather sloppy job; changing the data in the charts (even though this is supposed to be the original data) but leaving the original numbers in the text. The archived page here says it was updated in November 2019, but I referenced it in a blog post I wrote in March… This is kind of stuff that fuels conspiracy theories.
Schools are the most important organized component of modern society. There is no data to support the impending devastation that will come from rendering them useless, and all the restrictions are based purely on fear.
But we have vaccines for influenza! And treatments!
Yeah, and people still die by the thousands, including kids.
But that’s because they are too stupid to get vaccinated!
OK, then why can’t I be too stupid to stay away from other people?
Which brings us to: What I do affects you.
This is really the root of the problem, this concept that my behavior endangers others, specifically you. We like to deflect that last part, because concern for others is noble, whereas concern for one’s self is, well, selfish. This entire fiasco – our societal shutdown – is driven by the fear that what I do endangers you. But it just doesn’t, and at some point, you are going to have to let it go. I suggest you let it go sooner rather than later, because the damage we are doing is far beyond the virus itself, as I have tried in as many clever ways as I can possibly dream up to illustrate this. I don’t really look forward to the graphs and pie charts comparing the numbers of dead from the virus and the numbers of dead from things like cancer or child abuse or drug abuse or suicide or any other medical condition that is going unmanaged, and these charts will only show the tip of the poverty iceberg that is solidifying with every passing day.
If you are so smart, what are we supposed to do?
I am glad you asked.
First: stop relying on others to keep you safe, take care of yourself. That means learn how this stuff really spreads, and how to really protect yourself. Focus on things that actually work in the riskiest situations, instead of focusing on things that aren’t proven to work in situations that are relatively low risk. Yes, this virus is different than influenza, but not in the way it spreads, and we have had standards for how to deal with flu for years and years. Those standards still apply.
Far and away, the most common is person to person from a symptomatic person. Fear of unlikely (and unproven) catastrophe like an asymptomatic person passing it to millions of others has diverted us from focusing on this most important problem, especially when we refuse to recognize that this is not that easy. We are not a people that stays home when we don’t feel well, and this should be the number one thing we change. Instead of trying to force everyone to wear panties on their heads and feeling good about it, strongly encourage people to stay home if they don’t feel well, and force employers to implement this as policy. If you are sick but are out and about using some sock as a pretend virus shield and people think this is a good plan, it’s just not.
Data suggests that this virus is more infectious earlier in the course of disease than others, which means if you don’t feel quite right, stay the f#@& home. Give it a day, and if it turns out to be nothing, well there you go. And no, testing is not the answer, because I don’t give two shits if you are COVID free, I would still prefer to not die of influenza. Especially now, because no one will care (or know, because they won’t test for it).
If you are vulnerable or just worried, get a real N95 mask, have a professional explain how it is to be used, and then use it all the time when you are around people that could give you a virus that could kill you. And those people could be wearing cloth masks, so don’t allow this completely unregulated crap lull you into letting your guard down. Effective isolation means 100%, and COVID is not the only virus that can kill you.
And let kids be kids. Every spec of data supports this, and that is not even factoring in the immeasurable damage from things like shutting down schools.
If you want to stay home, stay home. If you don’t want to go to a rock concert, don’t go. If you want to wear a cloth mask, go ahead. If you need to wear a purpose-built N95 mask, please do. If you want to wear a space suit, be my guest. Every business that is open and every employee that is working is doing so of their own volition. Every person that walks in the to a retail business or a restaurant or a gym or a school is doing this by choice. Someone else wearing a cloth mask doesn’t protect you, so don’t pretend it does, and if you don’t feel well, be a good sport and stay home.
With everything open and working it makes it a lot easier to allow you to video conference or get delivery or have someone else help you stay effectively isolated. And nothing I do affects your safety in any way, it just scares you that I am living in a way that you are not comfortable with, not unlike seeing someone sit on the edge of a cliff. So stop telling me or anyone else for that matter what we are allowed to do. If I want to be an idiot and end up getting an infection that kills me, that’s not going to affect you one iota if you just do like I just told you to do.
All of this is fear. Fear of a virus, fear of it spreading, fear of it killing. But fear is what is spreading, and fear is what is killing, and recovering from the fear is going to be a lot harder than recovering from the virus.
And the dead won’t care why they died.