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COVID-19 “Urgency of Normal” vs. Public Health Science

Summary: As the COVID Omicron variant subsides, and schools cautiously reopen, a tiny but vocal group of doctors is arguing to end all precautions, including masking. Their arguments distort public health evidence. Under-vaccinated and under-resourced communities are the most likely to suffer from such a strategy.

Why Is This Group of Doctors So Intent on Unmasking Kids?
The New Republic
February 22, 2022
By Melody Schreiber

There is stark disagreement on the best path to a new normal. While the pandemic still rages, with 25 percent of children 5 to 11 and a little more than half of 12- to 17-year-olds vaccinated, a vocal minority of physicians and scientists has called for the end of precautions. Some of them, organized in a movement they call “the Urgency of Normal,” are finding an eager audience in those who have largely been spared the worst of the pandemic. The group says the precautions, more than the pandemic itself, are causing mental strain and potential harms to children. If the precautions are lifted, kids can return to normal.

Public health experts, meanwhile, point to what they say is a huge flaw in this reasoning: Removing precautions before meeting various vaccination, treatment, and caseload benchmarks could let the virus spread unchecked, develop more dangerous variants, and put “normal” out of reach for much, much longer.

There is, to be clear, little scientific disagreement about what helps quell the pandemic. Vaccinations, masks, ventilation, tests, staying home while sick—these layers of protection, when employed, are highly effective at keeping the virus from spreading, which is especially urgent with 109,000 daily cases, 2,000 daily deaths, and many hospitals still at capacity.

The science is strong. But this movement to drop pandemic precautions is about something else entirely—a potent mix of pandemic fatigue, politics, individualistic thinking, and, if both polling and pandemic statistics are to be believed, a persistent divide based on class and race.

… In the past two weeks, governors have begun rolling back the few state-level mask mandates that existed. …

But the Urgency of Normal group wants to go a step further: ending all precautions for children, permanently.

“… what they did with the mental health science. It’s a true perversion of what science communication is supposed to be,” Black said. “They had mis-cited the CDC…” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that there was no significant increase in child suicide, yet the group used that study to claim the opposite—an increase in suicide.

Given that the research on masking is pretty favorable to mandates, especially during times of high transmission, the downsides of masking increasingly look political. But even when it comes to politics, anti-maskers run into data problems: Polls show overwhelming support for mask mandates.

The places that could actually attain a sense of normalcy are overwhelmingly high-income, white communities that have long been insulated from the worst effects of the pandemic. And these are the locations with the most support for lifting precautions.

Comment by: Gregg Gonsalves

This article in The New Republic describes a movement to remove all COVID-19 pandemic mitigation strategies in schools, starting with masking of students, under the tagline of the #urgencyofnormal.

The author describes the leadership of the group as composed of people with limited public health expertise, including Dr. Lucy McBride, a concierge internist in DC; Dr. Scott Balsitis a virologist at the drug company Gilead Sciences, and; a hematologist-oncologist at UCSF, Dr. Vinay Prasad. Despite this, the group has been able to get heavy mainstream media attention, including on CNN and other major cable news outlets.

The #urgencyofnormal movement has largely been targeted at white, wealthy, liberal parents and “particularly focused toward highly vaccinated communities” with a toolkit of advice for parents on how to argue against pandemic mitigation measures.

The problem the article exposes is that the leaders and creators of the toolkit have relied on dubious interpretations and cherry-picking of the science, on masks, the mental health impact of COVID mitigation strategies, and the clinical impact of the disease on children. In addition, with its focus on highly vaccinated communities, the #urgencyofnormal creators have ignored the disparities in vaccination and resources to protect students, teachers and staff in schools outside of wealthy, white urban and suburban enclaves.

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