Friday, April 22, 2022

Maskaholics Anonymous

To keep us all up to date about the ongoing debate over masking, I am happy to offer the views of John Tierney, from City Journal, (via Maggie’s Farm) and from Tom Nichols in the Atlantic. Thus, someone from the right side of the spectrum and someone presumably from the left side.

As of now, a federal judge has overturned the government’s mask mandate. Immediately, she was denounced as being sub-standard-- which means that her ruling contradicted the received wisdom of the woke political class. Then, after the president said that people could choose for themselves whether or not to mask up, his justice department decided to appeal the judge’s ruling-- because it threatens the exercise of arbitrary government authority.

The polls suggest that most people favor masking, and that detail is surely behind the decision to appeal. Others suggest that the mask mandate was wildly unpopular and that reinstating it will damage the Democratic Party’s political prospects.

One suspects that it was really all about politics anyway; science be damned. 

And, of course, people who are at very low risk of contracting the virus are still masking up, as though to signal their virtue. Making toddlers wear masks, as is happening in New York City preschools feels like gross overreach. 

Anyway, the burning question is: does masking work to control the spread of the virus.

To which John Tierney offers this analysis, beginning with the unintended consequences of this bit of virtue signaling:

The pandemic has eased, but not the compulsion of many Americans to cover their faces. Fully vaccinated adults are still wearing masks on their solitary walks outdoors, and officials have been enforcing mask mandates on airline passengers and on some city-dwellers and students. (Though today’s ruling by U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle in Tampa, declaring the Biden administration’s mask mandate for public transportation unlawful, comes as welcome news.)

Maskaholics in the press are calling for permanent masking on trains, planes, and buses. High school students in Seattle staged a protest demanding that a mask mandate be reinstated, and psychologists now deal with the anxieties of children who don’t want their classmates to see their faces. They’re suffering from “mask dependency,” as this psychological affliction is termed in Japan, where a long tradition of mask-wearing during flu season has left some individuals afraid at any time to expose their faces in public.

Being as states are the laboratories of democracy, or some such, Tierney has chosen to compare and contrast the results of states with forced masking versus the results of states where such was not mandated:

Eleven states never mandated masks, while the other 39 states enforced mandates. The mandates typically began early in the pandemic in 2020 and remained until at least the summer of 2021, with some extending into 2022. The black line on the graph shows the weekly rate of Covid cases in all the states with mask mandates that week, while the orange line shows the rate in all the states without mandates.

As you can see from the lines’ similar trajectories, the mask mandates hardly controlled the virus. By the time the mandates were introduced in New York and other states in the spring of 2020 (at the left side of the graph), infections had already been declining in those states, and the mandates didn’t prevent a surge later that year, when cases rose and fell in nearly identical trajectories regardless of states’ mask policies. The pandemic’s second year saw slight deviations in both directions, but those reflected the seasonality of the virus and the geography of mask mandates, which remained more common in northern states. 

Cases were higher in the non-mandate states last summer, when the seasonal surge in the South disproportionately hit Republican states without mandates, but those states went on to have fewer cases during the winter, when the seasonal surge in the North hit more Democratic states with mandates.

He concluded:

If you add up all the numbers on those two lines, you find that the mask mandates made zero difference. The cumulative rate of infection over the course of the pandemic was about 24 percent in the mandate states as well as in the non-mandate states. Their cumulative rates of Covid mortality were virtually identical, too (in fact, there were slightly more deaths per capita in the states with mask mandates).

He found the same results when he compared Sweden with Germany:

The masks in Germany obviously didn’t “beat Covid.” From the start of the pandemic through this spring, the cumulative rate of Covid mortality has been slightly higher in Sweden than in Germany (by about 15 percent), but the rate of overall excess mortality has been slightly higher in Germany (by about 8 percent). Just as in the United States, the mask mandates in Germany produced no net benefits but plenty of inconvenience as well as outright harm. Covering up may give the maskaholics a false sense of security—but they could breathe more easily if they’d just face the facts.

And then, Tom Nichols, in the Atlantic drew something of the same conclusion:

Mask mandates were a stopgap, an emergency safety measure imposed by governments with few other options to stem the pandemic, and they fell away in other areas of public life once vaccines were widely available. The transportation masking rules proved hard to dislodge, however, and they serve as a good example of how prudent measures can turn into little more than symbolism.

Nichols suggests that masking was what he called, “safety theatre,” whose effect was to prevent us from living our lives. It also damaged the ability of human beings to socialize and this, of itself, caused significant mental health damage, especially to the student population:

It was time to end that mandate, and it is time to think as well about other kinds of pointless safety theater that we might bring to an end—including the security theater in schools and businesses that serves little purpose except to keep us all terrified of living our lives.

In closing, Nichols offers a sane and sensible remark about government policy. It needs to be clear, precise, comprehensible and seemingly rational. If it seems to be chaotic and arbitrary people will resist it:

Government mandates are necessary and serve an important purpose, but they should be used sparingly. Good public policy is simple, easy to understand, and easy to follow. “You must wear a mask on an airplane but not in a sports arena, and you must keep that mask on unless you brought a bag of candy or a large coffee, and the mask can be anything you want it to be as long as it looks like it’s hanging somewhere near your face” is not a good policy. It’s an attempt to calm the nerves of people whose tolerance for risk—often for perfectly valid reasons—is lower than that of others.

Experts, including doctors, can tell us only about numbers and probabilities. They cannot tell us what level of collective risk we should be willing to assume. Only we can make that decision, and we do, every day. We set speed limits that we know would save more people if they were lower; we allow products to be sold that we know will shorten the lives of some of the people who use them. Democratic societies routinely make such trade-offs. If the American public is willing to accept such risks, experts cannot countermand those decisions except by demonstrating that government action is immediately necessary as a response to an emergency that cannot be handled any other way. Our responsibility as citizens, however, is to make informed choices—and to always remember that a certain amount of risk and danger is the price of living in a free and open society.

Ah, yes. We are obliged, as citizens of the republic, to accept a certain quantity of risk in our lives. Those who want to impose masks on everyone want to eliminate all risk-- even though the lockdowns and mask mandates cause damage in and of themselves.


Anonymous said...

Encouraging Masking Across America. (a) The Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), including through the Director of CDC, shall engage, as appropriate, with State, local, Tribal, and territorial officials, as well as business, union, academic, and other community leaders, regarding mask-wearing and other public health measures, with the goal of maximizing public compliance with, and addressing any obstacles.
To help figure out where masks are necessary the CDC published a new color-coded map revealing zones of low, medium, and high transmission. Areas of low risk, where people do not need to mask indoors, are indicated in green; as of March 24, this applies to most of the country.
A respirator has better filtration, so offers better protection than a cloth or surgical mask if you wear it the right way the whole time you wear it. A mask or respirator is less effective if it fits poorly. And as much of the world opens up, consider all the ways children hang out with each other. Masks may stop transmission in the classroom itself, but children interact outside of school hours.

Walt said...

Even if masks made sense, the inconsistency screamed for skepticism. Churchgoers at outdoor services were arrested for their lack but 1000 “health experts” signed an open letter saying massive maskless BLM protests were fine. Laws demanded masking on your way into a restaurant, but once you were seated—and eating, talking, laughing, perchance to sneeze or cough—you could mask off for hours. Same on a plane. As though the virus would oblige and only try to spread between the door and the table, and only at peaceful gatherings but not among angry mobs.

markedup2 said...

Mask effectiveness is IRRELEVANT to whether or not a particular government agency has the legal authority to mandate them. "It's legal if it works" is not equivalent to "it's not stupid if it works."