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COVID narrative is no lie

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COVID narrative is no lie

By Steven A. Smith

We are in a bad way.

As the week begins, those who track such things tell us the COVID pandemic is going to wreak unprecedented havoc in the next month.

Washington and Idaho hospitals are already near ICU capacity and there are plans in place to move patients around as caseloads increase in one community or another.

Meanwhile, governors in Washington and Oregon have re-imposed new restrictions on public life while continuing to urge social distancing and mask use. Opposition to those steps has taken on absurd proportions.

Over the weekend there were news reports that patrons of one Kennewick bar pursued state liquor board officers who were trying to serve the bar with a cease and desist order for violating the state’s restrictions on inside service. Later, bar patrons and other protesters – this is true – stood outside the home of one officer demanding he come out to apologize for his actions.

That the politicization of the COVID pandemic has reached such levels of dangerous nonsense should not come as a surprise. The alt-facts social media world has been escalating allegations the pandemic is a lie perpetrated by Democrats, the deep state, gun-control advocates and the transgendered. That last is an indication of how far absurdity has gone in the universe populated by QAnon conspiracy nuts. Yes, Joe Biden and the deep state intend to employ a transgender army to kill God-fearing Christian patriots.

Most of us stopped laughing at this bizarre nonsense long ago. It is not funny now, if it ever was. It is dangerous, as demonstrated by the bar patrons who attacked armed liquor board agents whose training and common sense led them to leave the confrontation in their rear-view mirrors.

Fueling the latest round of “COVID is a lie” rhetoric are inaccurate social media posts about a Danish study that supposedly debunks the preventive efficacy of face masks.

In posts that have gone viral, the anti-maskers, COVID-is-a-lie crowd cite a Nov. 18 article in the Annals of Internal Medicine that they assert proves masks provide no protective benefit. Of course, they would benefit from actually reading the article and the two accompanying editorials that explain the study and its findings in detail.

(Those who want to shortcut that process can read the FactCheck.org report on the inaccurate social media posts that have mischaracterized the study and its findings. Here is the link.)

As with all medical studies, results depend on several factors, including when the study was conducted, who was studied and under what circumstances and limitations. It is also a good idea to review the study’s statistical validity.

The cited study was conducted in Denmark at a time when the general population was not asked to wear masks.

Most importantly, as reported by the authors, “the study only assessed the personal protective effect of a mask intervention (on one individual), not the potential for masks to hamper spread of the virus to others.” In other words, a person wearing a mask and exposed directly to aerosol droplets might or might not be protected. The study did not assess at all whether two people wearing masks might protect one another to some extent, the point of a mask-wearing protocol in the general population.

Furthermore, the inconclusive findings (the authors’ own words) showed masks on a single individual could be as much as 46 percent effective in limiting some exposure to 23 percent ineffective. That means a face mask could be twice as likely to be effective as ineffective, although that conclusion is itself an oversimplification of a complicated study.

The wide range of statistical possibilities is why understanding the nature of statistical validity is so important before drawing conclusions from any study.

One guest columnist in a regional newspaper said that, among other things, if COVID were an issue, why is it no one member of an area church has contracted the virus even as the congregation has been meeting in large numbers without social distancing and masks?

The writer seems to have fallen victim to a confusion we too often see in the other hot anti-science issue, the debate over human-caused climate change. In essence, he is confusing weather with climate.

Today’s weather may be just fine in the church he mentions, likely because the rest of the community has been aggressive in adopting mask and social distancing policies.

But while the weather is good where he lives, violent pandemic storms are rocking the Midwest and the South at the same time the dark clouds of the post-Thanksgiving super-spreader holiday are gathering in Washington and North Idaho.

Science makes clear that the weather will always be variable from place to place. You can have global warming and still experience blizzards in Spokane. But climate is about the big, long-term picture and understanding climate means taking a longer, wider view. The COVID climate is not a lie. It is a devastating truth and all of us are at some level of risk.

Which is why we must take seriously the conspiracy theory nonsense, the COVID-is-a-lie assertions, and the misreporting of legitimate scientific research.

The New York Times, citing federal data, reports there have been more than 13 million confirmed infections in the United States since the start of the pandemic last winter. In the last week, new infections were reported at the rate of more than 150,000 per day. Deaths have been ranging from 1,500 to 2,000 per day. And the willingness of people to violate mask and social-distancing requests during the Thanksgiving holiday will send those numbers soaring within two weeks, experts say.

By now, it would be hard to find an American who has not been touched by COVID in some way. My brother and sister-in-law were infected. She is a nurse, infected by an elderly patient. She is seriously ill, my brother less so. A favorite aunt died of the disease a few weeks back and we suspect COVID killed my mother in early April, too early in the pandemic for confirmation.

My nephew, a surgeon in Cleveland, wrote on Saturday that in making his rounds at four hospitals he saw wards crammed with COVID patients and health-care workers exhausted and nearing the breaking point.

So, with all the evidence to the contrary, why do some continue to insist this is a lie motivated by political self-interest and power-hungry elites? Why not wear a mask, at least?

I do not recall ever seeing a study from anywhere that suggests wearing masks alone will prevent the spread of COVID. But if you want to make a political point, you start with that inaccurate presumption, misstate a medical journal article you seemingly never read, and then draw an incorrect conclusion.

For those who believe COVID is a hoax, contrary facts will not dissuade. And if you think we have reached the nadir, the Twilight Zone of absurdity, wait for the anti-vaxxers to weigh in when vaccines become available. That’s right. Those who deny the pandemic in the first place will then deny the vaccine that offers a potential preventive delaying the development of immunity in the general population.

There is every indication the insanity will continue.

About Steven A Smith

Steven A. Smith is clinical associate professor emeritus in the School of Journalism and Mass Media at the University of Idaho having retired from full time teaching at the end of May 2020.

Smith is former editor of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington. As editor, Smith supervised all news and editorial operations on all platforms with a staff ranging from more than 140 in 2002 to 104 at the time of his resignation in October 2008. Prior to joining The Spokesman-Review, Smith was editor for two years at The Statesman Journal, a Gannett newspaper in Salem, Oregon, and was for five years editor and vice president of The Gazette, a Freedom Communications newspaper in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Newspaper Management Center Advanced Executive Program and a mid-career development program at Duke University. He holds an MA in communication from The Ohio State University where he was a Kiplinger Fellow, and a BS in journalism from the University of Oregon.

Smith serves on the SpokaneFāVS Board.

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