Politics undermined essential lessons and solutions during the pandemic

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

At the beginning of the pandemic, back in spring 2020, I talked with several public health experts and public officials about the limitations of lockdowns and closures as a method of preventing viral spread. I pointed out that fear causes people to take fewer precautions and historically lockdowns have not worked well because panicked people may disregard restrictions, spreading more of the virus.  

Several of these same experts and officials, though acknowledging my concerns at the time, went on to back a policy of lockdowns and closures across the U.S. that not only didn’t effectively control viral spread for more than a few months but also helped foster economic disaster, a mental health pandemic and delays in health screenings and other medical care. There was also a big negative impact on learning and socialization in schools across the country that went fully remote. 

This was clearly not the famous business and school closures instituted in St. Louis, Mo., by health commissioner Dr. Max Starkloff, which did slow the spread of the 1918 Spanish Flu’s notorious second wave. It turned out that flu models did not apply readily to COVID, which spread much more easily than flu. 

Flash forward two years and countries with a government stranglehold on public health — including China, South Korea, New Zealand and Australia — have all experienced recent surges of omicron cases in part because they have “virgin” populations that were kept from prior, less contagious waves by more extreme public health restrictions and so-called zero COVID strategies. They have less immunity built up and they also haven’t been compliant enough with the most effective vaccines and boosters to fully compensate. 

But the political reactions against severe restrictions haven’t worked either. Places like Sweden that eschewed restrictions ended up with a higher death rate from COVID.  

Dogmatic reactions to politics polluting science are not automatically science themselves. Ivermectin as a drug to treat COVID does not work just because its proponents are reacting to being marginalized. In fact, as more studies have emerged on the ineffectiveness of ivermectin against COVID, many have refused to relinquish its use, which is definitely not science either.   

Similarly, scientists who responded to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s faulty strategy of ignoring natural immunity from infection as a form of protection by overselling natural immunity were following another political rather than medical strategy. It turns out that natural immunity — though it is effective against at least the variant you had and combines well with at least one shot of a vaccine to provide a more durable and substantial immunity against COVID — is still limited in duration and has not led to the herd immunity that some public health experts predicted a year ago. Omicron, for example, is immune-evasive and has a high reinfection rate.  

At the same time, overselling the vaccine and continuing to insist on mandates when the vaccines have become less effective at controlling spread with each succeeding variant is also not good science. It would have been much more effective to openly acknowledge the vaccines’ limitations — they are much better at preventing hospitalization and long COVID than decreasing spread, especially with omicron. Frequent side effects, yes, but serious problems are very rare. If you can still easily catch and spread COVID despite being vaccinated and boosted then mandates make no sense in terms of public safety and should not be public policy.  

Masks have been more of a political weapon than a public health tool throughout the pandemic. Though multiple population and simulation studies have shown usefulness despite the ease of spread of this virus, at the same time there have been no double-blinded placebo-controlled randomized trials that so many health officials have insisted on for proof when it comes to other suggested interventions and therapeutics. This inconsistency undermines both science and public confidence.  

Now along comes a second wave of omicron, the so-called BA.2 subvariant, and once again the fearmongers are threatening closures while the naysayers are insisting the pandemic is long gone and normalcy has returned. As usual, the real science is to be found in between.  

BA.2 is more contagious but it is not more severe, and if you are boosted and/or had a recent case of COVID you are most likely protected against anything but the mildest case. This so-called decoupling between case numbers (will rise) and hospitalizations (which likely won’t) is due to all the omicron immunity around, both from the vaccine (especially if recently boosted) as well as natural immunity.  

This is the real science: It is time we pay attention to it.

Marc Siegel, M.D., is a professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Health. He is a Fox News medical correspondent and author of the new book, “COVID; the Politics of Fear and the Power of Science.”

Tags COVID-19 pandemic Doctor Radio living with COVID-19 Marc Siegel National responses to the COVID-19 pandemic Pandemic Responses to the COVID-19 pandemic SARS-CoV-2 Omicron variant Vaccine

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