The Biden administration is conflicted. On the one hand, Covid infections and hospitalizations are again on the rise. The White House is reportedly “bracing for a challenging” surge of cases. Up to 100 million Americans could yet become infected, they warn, and the nation has neither the psychological bandwidth to prepare itself nor the funds to contend with a new surge. On the other hand, the administration is congratulating itself because deaths from Covid have not increased despite a month-long surge of new infections. The “de-linking” of proportionate death rates to infections and hospitalizations is a mile marker on the road to treating this endemic coronavirus like any other endemic coronavirus.
Despite this progress, public health experts are again advocating the adoption of mid-pandemic mitigation measures such as mask mandates. But some of those same public health experts also know there is a small audience for their advocacy. So, they are limiting their recommendation to address only those who are still paying attention to them: primarily, Democrats.
As Time Magazine recently reported, school districts in some of America’s bluest cities are restoring mask mandates for students, many of which were only rescinded as recently as April. In cities like Boston, Philadelphia, and Providence, Rhode Island, the masks are back. While a spike in Covid infections ostensibly triggers this policy, it is tailored to regions with political climates that are most amenable to masking.
Time cited a recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey that found two-thirds of Democratic voters favor mask mandates in schools while nearly eight-in-ten Republicans oppose them. “Given that level of polarization, in places where there is likely to be a strong backlash to reinstating mask mandates, [University of Washington epidemiologist Brandon] Guthrie says it might not be effective for schools to push for universal masking at this time,” the report read.
“We need to be thoughtful about promoting preventative measures that are going to be the most effective at the least cost,” Guthrie added. The epidemiologist was surely referring to financial costs, but by explicitly recommending masking for those who are most likely to comply, he’s exposed another cost of these policies: the cost in political capital, which is born primarily by the public health community and public school officials.
The price they’ve paid has been steep. As of February, the number of poll respondents who report having zero confidence in the scientific and medical community has surged to 22 percent from 14 percent in November 2020, at the height of the pandemic. Sixty-four percent tell pollsters they have high confidence that school administrators can navigate the pandemic, a decline of nearly 20 points from April 2020. That mistrust has been well earned.
The avatars of the pandemic who (admittedly) fudged the numbers that would constitute “herd immunity” and who prevaricated regarding the efficacy of masking in order to shape and mold Americans’ behavior patterns worked hard to merit the public’s skepticism. Those in that same community who discovered amid a pandemic that racism was a greater health concern than Covid and the only prescription was protest deserve the public’s scorn. The school administrators who kept schools closed for extended periods, despite all evidence of their safety, have sacrificed the public’s trust. The officials who incubated in the public a crisis of “behavioral health”—according to the Government Accountability Office, a crisis of depression, exhaustion, and hypochondria—have justified and legitimized the public’s agnosticism.
And now, to hear this public health expert tell it, masking remains a crucial element of public health in schools and among children—but only if they live in regions with the right politics. We have long known that children are among those least vulnerable to this disease and most likely experience significant psychosocial consequences as a result of measures like masking and social distancing.
This is a broken system. It is in desperate need of repair. But who can we trust to fix it?