“Who was that masked man?”
It’s everybody! Again.
Well, not everybody. But if you live in an area where the Delta variant is spreading rapidly, new CDC guidance suggests even vaccinated Americans wear face coverings in public, indoor spaces. Of course, if the national vaccination rate doesn’t move about 20 points higher, those “isolated” hot spots could end up derailing the entire country on the path back to normalcy. “Biden’s ‘Summer of Joy’ Turns Grim as Delta Infections Skyrocket,” one headline read.
The CDC is back in the position of having to issue what could fairly be described as contradictory guidance. Health officials called for all teachers, staff and students to wear masks irrespective of whether they’ve been vaccinated, but nevertheless recommended a return to in-person learning in the fall. We’re a long way from straws and spitballs.
The seven-day rolling average of new daily cases is above 50,000. That’s obviously nowhere near where it was during the final days of Nero’s reign, but for comparison, it was just ~11,500 on June 19 (figure below).
At the risk of coming across as crass, there’s at least a loose link to education levels. “The CDC said Americans should resume wearing masks in areas where there are more than 50 new infections per 100,000 residents over the previous seven days, or more than 8% of tests are positive for infection over that period,” The New York Times noted, recapping the new guidance and adding that “by those criteria, all residents of Florida, Arkansas and Louisiana should wear masks indoors.”
Arkansas and Louisiana are among the worst ranking states for K-12 and higher education. Florida is actually near the top of the list, but Missouri, another hot spot, ranks poorly, as do Texas and Alabama.
The less education you have, the more vulnerable you are to misinformation about the vaccines and about public health more generally. Louisiana has the third-lowest partial vaccination rate in the country. Alabama the fifth. Arkansas the ninth. In Mississippi, less than 40% are partially vaccinated. The state ranks 43rd on the education rankings list cited above.
Obviously, there’s no guarantee state and local officials will listen to the CDC and in some “problem” states, the locals are unlikely to adhere to new mandates anyway, especially in remote areas where vaccines are an extremely tough sell.
This is a highly unfortunate scenario. At a certain point, benign paternalism is preferable to letting people accidentally kill themselves and the people they live and work with. Corporations are grappling with the best way to approach vaccine mandates and it does appear the White House will require all federal employees to either be vaccinated or acquiesce to regular testing, on the (unspoken) assumption that eventually, people will become weary of the tests and just get the shot. The same strategy is being implemented in New York City and California, and it’ll probably become more norm than exception. White House staff were apparently instructed to start wearing masks inside again.
But if misinformation is a big part of the problem (and we know it is), it’s not clear why the people responsible for spreading it aren’t completely de-platformed by social media. If that doesn’t work (for example, if they have their own websites), the government could instruct Amazon (for example) to cease and desist from providing them with hosting services. If they still aren’t dissuaded, and they’re US-based, one idea is to briefly detain them for endangering the public, and advise them that continuing to engage in such activity will result in criminal charges. At the least, the prospect of having to spend money on a lawyer would be a deterrent.
If social media, hosting services and, more to the point, the government, won’t take those steps, it’s difficult to know where to assign blame. After all, it’s not reasonable to expect people making hundreds of thousands (or millions) of dollars monetizing vaccine misinformation and pandemic conspiracy theories, to stop out of some moral imperative. If those folks were inclined to such normative concerns, they wouldn’t be in the business of monetizing misinformation in the first place.
Remember, these folks aren’t helping people make “informed decisions.” They’re doing the opposite of that. They’re force-feeding undereducated people misinformation not just about the vaccines themselves, but about government agencies and politicians. Family doctors have little hope of completely exorcising those demons once their patients are possessed.
There have been several high-profile instances of web hosts cutting ties with publishers due to egregious violations that constituted threats to public safety. It’s not clear (at all) why spreading vaccine misinformation isn’t at least as dangerous as the activity cited in cases involving The Daily Stormer and Parler, for example.
On Tuesday, Rochelle Walensky said “the Delta variant is showing every day its willingness to outsmart us.”
That’s true, in a way. But as Joe Biden later put it, “we have a pandemic because of the unvaccinated, and they’re sowing enormous confusion.” “There’s only one thing we know for sure,” he added. “If those other hundred million people got vaccinated, we’d be in a very different world.”
If we know that “for sure,” and we know that a big part of vaccine hesitancy is based on demonstrable falsehoods, easily disprovable statements and, depending on the peddler, for-profit lies, it’s incumbent upon the government to arrest the spread of information. Figuratively or, if necessary, literally.
We could have solved this problem by devoting more resources to education, but it’s too late for that.