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It’s Not Just About the Masks

We have not just lost our minds, but given them up voluntarily.

It was never just a mask, it has always been a way of thinking. “Mask” is just shorthand.

I got dumped from my volunteer work at the Hawaiian Humane Society for choosing not to wear a mask outside while walking their dogs. Neither science, the CDC, nor the state requires a mask outdoors, and I’m fully vaccinated. Some staff bot saw my naked face and informed me of their “policy.” I asked why they had such a nonsensical policy, and her only answer was “it is our policy.” The conversation ended like an ever-growing percentage of conversations in America now end, with her saying, “Do I need to call security?” I didn’t enjoy it, but I think she did.

I was left with no good to do this week, and a simple, real Covid-19 question. Why are fully vaccinated people treated the same as the unvaccinated? Everyone on the plane wears a mask and goes through the same mock social distancing. Everyone at a restaurant, office, concert, etc., does the same. The answer is at the heart of whether public policy in America will shift and allow us to crawl back into our lives.

The biggest reason for treating vaxxed and unvaxxed people the same miserable way is the claim that vaccinated people can still get Covid enough to pass it on. Funny thing is you can actually “get” the measles even after being vaccinated. The vax is actually only 97 percent effective, similar to the Covid ones. But nobody talks about measles or demands we wear a mask to prevent their spread. We simply accept and deal with the risk.

The next question is really, really hard to find an answer to. How many vaccinated people actually get Covid, the so-called “breakthrough” cases?

That exact number is critical because it is the pivot point for the risk vs. gain decision our society needs to make. If we cannot make a wise choice we will be struggling with and fighting over the restrictions on our lives and livelihoods forever. If we assume we’ll never have full vaccination and that breakthrough cases are a non-zero number and likely always will be then we need to make an informed decision about risk. So is it a non-zero number like, duh, “smoking causes cancer,” or a non-zero number like “very few people die from meteor strikes (or from the measles)?”

The current public policy decisions on risk are haphazard. All 50 states have different rules, many large cities, too, and each and every company. There are different rules if you take a bus or want to go dancing. One grocery store demands masks, another does not. It makes no sense. It becomes not a considered decision but an example of lack of public policy leadership. Into that leadership void enters superstition, pseudoscience, politics, voodoo, and most of all, fear.

So what are the chances of a fully vaccinated person getting a breakthrough infection? It turns out this pivotal question is not clearly answerable, but we act as if it is, with consequences for our lives, mental health, education, commerce, and more. Even for our stray dogs.

I started with Google and “What are the chances of getting COVID after being fully vaccinated?” expecting the answer in 0.0039 seconds, like when you ask what year some historical event happened. Nope. AARP says “less than one percent of fully vaccinated individuals have been hospitalized with, or have died from, COVID.” That’s a small number but does not fully address the question.

Over to NPR, which reports, “On rare occasions, some vaccinated people infected with the delta variant after vaccination may be contagious and spread the virus to others.” What does rare occasions mean? This is supposed to be, you know, science, so we finally get some numbers from the CDC: Out of 159 million fully vaccinated people, the CDC documented 5,914 cases of fully vaccinated people who were hospitalized or died from Covid-19, and 75 percent of them were over age 65. That means only 0.0000037 percent of vaxxed people were hospitalized or died, most of them elderly. That is a very small number. It is a lot less than one percent and a lot less than rare. Chances of dying in a car wreck are many tens of thousands of times higher and yet we drive on.

However, it still does not answer the question of how dangerous the vaxxed but unmasked are in terms of transmitting the virus. No one really knows. Recent scare headlines calling for reinstated restrictions and vax mandates are based on a single outbreak, 469 cases, in one city in Massachusetts, that appears to show (at variance with existing studies) 75 percent of those infected had been vaccinated and oddly, almost all of those people (87 percent) were male. Most of the infected were asymptomatic or experienced mild symptoms. No deaths.

What is believed is the a) Delta variant of Covid makes a b) temporary home inside a vaccinated man’s nose or upper respiratory area, c) outside the immune system. It waits there to be d) blown out and then be e) received by an f) unvaccinated person. So, all these things have to work out for it to matter. It is not simply a chore of toting up how many vaccinated people tested positive and then hitting the panic button. As one doctor put it, “We really need to shift toward a goal of preventing serious disease and disability and medical consequences, and not worry about every virus detected in somebody’s nose.”

Bottom Line 1: We need to stop the obsessive, simplistic, and misleading counting of positive tests and focus on real world consequences.

Requiring everyone wear masks again based on one outbreak may seem as if it can’t hurt, but it does. Organizations waste time and credibility enforcing measures that have limited if any impact (consider how many masks are so old, dirty, improperly worn, etc., to be fully useless.) To simply dismiss the reality of numbers with a blithe “well you can’t be too careful” only works if you imagine Covid restrictions have no secondary or tertiary effects.

Economies have been devastated. Education has disappeared for large numbers of kids. Despair grows menacingly. Suicide attempts by teen girls increased 26 percent during summer 2020 and 50 percent during winter of 2021. We are killing children to save them.

Economic inequality got a booster shot. The power of government has grown alarmingly. The ability to shape how we live, shop, work, and eat has been handed randomly to a near-endless range of actors, from the president to governors empowered with “emergency edicts” to clerks ever-anxious to call security not on shoplifters but on an exposed nose.

Americans’ irrational fears were created by politicians and the media, and have become a profit center. The New York Times for months ran columns saying Trump’s vaccine was another government syphilisexperiment. The vice president refused to take the shot during the campaign. Biden took it, then went right on masking as if it didn’t work.

It was a very successful campaign to propagate uncertainty for a political purpose. It is all their fault vaccine acceptance now varies by political party, where we live, and how much education we have. It’s a form of blowback—the information operation worked too well.

So we won’t concede the reality kids are unlikely to get sick and should go to school. That the vast majority of deaths occur among the elderly with comorbidities, not the general population. That ill-fitting masks and wiping down groceries with Clorox are theater. That the debate has become a political argument instead of an evidence-based one. That everybody agrees the CDC has lost credibility until one side needs it for some partisan purpose. That previously healthcare decisions started with the premise of “first, do no harm,” while today there is no conversation allowed about the balance of benefits and damages. That we simply tally the collateral damage while the virus remains unaffected.

Bottom Line 2: If we are to heal as a society there is only one answer, at some point we must simply ask what works and do that.

But we lack the political leadership to say what’s true, so we’re going back to “let’s just argue about masks and mandates.” Meanwhile the virus continues to find unvaccinated hosts. The economy won’t snap back. Biden is facing a mini civil war over required vaccinations and restarting lockdowns but has no plan. Things will hit the fan in September as Hot Vax Summer sputters, when every school district does something different, and federal unemployment supplements run out.

People have grown weary of being afraid and grown weary of being subject to the paranoid demands of safety fetishists. Many did what they were told to do—get vaxxed—only to find themselves stuck inside the same dysfunctional loop of mask/unmask. We are killing ourselves. Somehow that must be factored into our Covid response.

Bottom Line 3: We can’t resolve the pandemic until we end the panic and the politics. Can Biden do that?

Peter Van Buren is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi PeopleHooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japanand Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent.

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