This Week in the Mayonnaise Clinic: The Return of COVID Restrictions
Once again, the COVID Forever crowd is out of touch. Plus: Biden meets Doc Brown and takes the DeLorean back to January 2021. What does he do?
There is another COVID wave, I guess. Have you read any of the press coverage of said wave? It’s like reporting from another planet. Here’s the AP today.
With the new omicron variants again pushing hospitalizations and deaths higher in recent weeks, states and cities are rethinking their responses and the White House is stepping up efforts to alert the public.
Some experts said the warnings are too little, too late.
“It’s well past the time when the warning could have been put out there,” said Dr. Eric Topol, head of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, who has has called BA.5 “the worst variant yet.”
Global trends for the two mutants have been apparent for weeks, experts said — they quickly out-compete older variants and push cases higher wherever they appear. Yet Americans have tossed off their masks and jumped back into travel and social gatherings.
The worst variant yet! Spooky. And yet you are all tossing off your masks and jumping back into social gatherings! Do these people ever leave their basements?
A few months ago, I was doing a lot of complaining about the COVID Forever people, but I don’t do that anymore because they’re mostly not very important anymore. The effective end of COVID Forever was the April court decision tossing out the CDC’s transportation mask mandate. Team COVID Forever lost, we went back to normal, and they’re all still whining on Twitter from their basements, but I don’t have to engage with them.
It’s not that I don’t think COVID is an ongoing problem. It is, but I don’t think coverage of the vicissitudes of rising and falling case rates tells us much that’s important about what to do in our daily lives anymore. At this point, most of us have considered the risks and settled in on a level of protection that feels right to us. COVID is one of many risks out there, we have the information we need to decide how to manage that risk to a level that is acceptable to us. The issue is not that people haven’t been educated about the latest developments or the risks; it’s that they don’t necessarily share the value judgements or the cost-benefit analyses that prevail among the very peculiar set of people who get MPH degrees.
I do think there are important things the government should be doing about COVID. In particular, the vaccine development and approval process that could provide us more effective, more up-to-date, nasally delivered COVID vaccines is completely screwed up, and the FDA should fix it. We need a return of the spirit that drove Operation Warp Speed. But the COVID fanatics are always more interested in interventions that create facsimiles of religious penitence: low-efficacy mask mandates, an abandonment of social gatherings, and more broadly, finding every way possible to suck the joy and togetherness out of life. There is very little remaining public appetite for this, and as a result, they have been marginalized.
Except in Los Angeles County, which is likely to soon bring back its indoor mask mandate again.
Victor wrote in from Glendale a few weeks ago:
My impression (correct me if I’m wrong) is that you guys are over talking about Covid, which I can’t blame you for. But as an LA County resident who works in entertainment and deals with the consequences of COVID Forever policies on a very regular basis, I think it’s extremely important to keep public officials’ feet to the fire on this never ending “emergency.” Our dictatorial public health director (Barbara Ferrer) recently announced the return of an indoor mask mandate for film/tv production employees based on a trigger of hospitalizations reaching 8/100,000.
I’m not sure how fixated I am on the specific film-and-television issue — as Deadline noted in late June, a lot of studios and productions were already voluntarily implementing COVID protocols similar to those now imposed by the county, in part because COVID outbreaks are a huge mess in TV and film production, even moreso than they are in other industries. (If your star is out with COVID, you can’t just call in a backup.)
But the likely impending return of a much broader indoor mask mandate will impact a lot more people. And as it was previously, the mandate will be pretty stupid in terms of what it does and does not cover: The mask you wear won’t have to be any good, and at a restaurant, you’ll have to wear it from the maître d’ stand to your table but not while you’re sitting, etc.
Of course, the conceit about the mask mandate is that it isn’t at Ferrer’s discretion at all. There’s a formula based on how many people are in hospitals with COVID, and she just does what the formula says. She’s following the data!
But it’s within her power to set, change, and disregard the formula. That’s how mask mandates ended in lots of other jurisdictions: Nevada had a formula that meant masks were going to be required in Las Vegas casinos (and virtually every other public establishment in the state) approximately forever, and the formula hadn’t been adjusted for COVID’s declining deadliness or declining impact of COVID on the hospital system (or for changes in public opinion), and so the mask mandate just kept on and on and on until finally Governor Steve Sisolak stepped in, said enough was enough, withdrew the formula, and lifted the mask mandate.
The main question about the rules in LA County remains what it was when I wrote about the East Coast-West Coast divide on COVID sanity back in February: Who is Barbara Ferrer?
She’s not an elected official; she’s a civil servant, the director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. She has a PhD and an MPH and is definitely a subject-matter expert. But as we have discussed on the Very Serious podcast, experts aren’t supposed to make policy; they’re supposed to advise political leaders on policy, so political leaders can combine expertise with value judgments to make decisions in the interest of the public. What should be happening is that the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors — five elected officials who run the county government — would consider Ferrer’s advice, weigh any public health benefits of COVID restrictions against their social costs, and set policy. But instead, they’ve punted the decision making to Ferrer herself. Unsurprisingly, Ferrer has the cautious disposition of a public health professional, and she has set numerical formulas that are likely to leave the mask rules in place for much longer than in places where the elected leaders lead. This is “trust the science and listen to the experts” taken to its absurd end, where the experts get to impose not just their expertise but also their value judgments.
One thing I wonder about the return of the mandate in Los Angeles is what it will actually mean in practice. In April, when the CDC transportation mask mandate was thrown out in court, it became permissible again to ride the subway or in an Uber in New York without a mask. But in theory, that changed again a few days later, with New York State imposing its own rules covering transportation facilities — not just taxis and transit but also airport terminals, where masks are now “required” again, even though they are not required in structurally similar public places, such as shopping malls. But nobody seems to enforce this rule anywhere anymore, and in many of these places, a majority of people don’t follow it. Even employees go maskless, and nobody seems to bother them, either. The whole thing is kind of a joke.
I don’t think that’s a great situation. When the government makes rules and doesn’t enforce them, it sends a message that the law isn’t real and shouldn’t be taken seriously. But it’s better than the mandates being back for real. And I wonder if something similar might happen in Los Angeles if the government really tries to start telling people to wear masks at the gym again. What level of enforcement is Ferrer actually going to be able to muster? We’ll see.
Monkeypox update: My contempt for public health “experts” that bloomed under COVID has only grown as we have proceeded through the Monkeypox fiasco with the government failing to marshal and distribute adequate supplies of vaccine for an outbreak whose likely nature we have known for months due to the preview provided to us by Europe, where it hit first.
I’ve written on Monkeypox a couple of times recently but I want to flag an additional infuriating development: While the federal government has distributed just over 130,000 doses of the modern monkeypox vaccine (JYNNEOS), it owns about a million doses that are sitting in freezers in Denmark awaiting export to the US. Until this week, those doses couldn’t be exported because the FDA had failed to conduct a timely inspection of the manufacturing facility — never mind the EU’s relevant authority has inspected and approved the facility, which can already distribute into the European market.
Since the target community for this vaccination campaign — so long as it remains restricted to men who have sex with men and who also have particular exposure risks — is likely only a few hundred thousand Americans, the practical difference between having about a hundred thousand doses and having a million is enormous. But originally, the FDA hadn’t been planning to inspect the Danish plant until the fall. There is good news: this week, under pressure, the FDA has announced that it had expedited the inspection and that doses can be brought into the US — but they can’t be distributed until the FDA is done analyzing the inspection it’s already conducted.
“FDA accelerated its planned inspection to allow the U.S. to deliver additional monkeypox vaccine much more quickly than scheduled and hope to approve the release of doses by end of July,” said agency spokesman Michael Felberbaum, yesterday. I hope so, too!
If Biden comes across Doc Brown and can take the DeLorean back to Inauguration Day, what steps should he take to go back in time and improve his presidency? (Besides, obviously, a smaller American Rescue Plan package.)