The development of multiple effective COVID-19 vaccines within a year of the coronavirus pandemic was an awe-inspiring achievement by our pharmaceutical researchers, a success made possible by significant financial investments from the Trump Administration’s Operation Warp Speed. Multiple states have rolled back pandemic-induced restrictions as a result of the vaccines’ efficacy—a highly visible demonstration of how scientific innovation benefits society.
[P]ublic optics are, of course, important: the decision to vaccinate, and follow public health guidelines in general, are strongly dependent upon building public trust.
Such a public triumph should be met with resounding applause. Instead, the rate of vaccination has begun to decelerate, with a significant portion of the population exhibiting “vaccine hesitancy.” In response, public health officials and the mainstream media alike have looked down their noses to scold the neanderthals responsible: Republicans. “The fact that one may not want to get vaccinated, in this case a disturbingly large proportion of Republicans, only actually works against where they want to be… On the one hand they want to be relieved of the restrictions. On the other hand, they don’t want to get vaccinated, it just almost doesn’t make any sense,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told a CNN interviewer.
It should not be surprising, however, that the vaccine is viewed through a partisan lens: from the very beginning of the pandemic, COVID-19 policy has been characterized by a high degree of politicization by our media and missteps by our public health officials during interactions with the general populace.
I want to emphasize an important point: it is okay for scientists to be wrong. Indeed, one of the early criteria used to define “science” is the potential for “falsifiability,” an idea first postulated by the Austrian philosopher Karl Popper in his 1934 book Logik der Forschung (The Logic of Scientific Discovery). In this work, Popper argued that an idea should only be considered “scientific” if one could conceivably make an observation that could disprove it. Thus, given the chaotic environment that accompanied the early days of the pandemic, I do not begrudge scientists for changing their recommendations based upon the latest available data (see, for example, the short-lived “15 days to slow the spread”).
With that being said, public optics are, of course, important: the decision to vaccinate, and follow public health guidelines in general, are strongly dependent upon building public trust. And in this regard, our public health officials failed spectacularly.
MASKS, TREATMENTS, LOCKDOWNS: PUBLIC HEALTH OFFICIALS CAN’T STOP LYING
The most egregious example of this failure was the mask mandate. In the early stages of the pandemic, Dr. Fauci, the de facto public health spokesperson for former President Trump’s White House Coronavirus Task Force, informed the public that there was “no reason to be walking around with a mask… it’s not providing the perfect protection that people think that it is, and often there are unintended consequences.” One month later, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reversed course and recommended wearing masks, a stark contradiction from Dr. Fauci’s previous statement on the topic.
[T]here is little correlation between COVID-19 infection and death rates and a state’s decision about whether or not to impose a mask mandate.
What was truly stunning about this reversal is that, when pressed on the policy change, Dr. Fauci admitted that he initially discouraged mask-wearing to ensure that front-line workers would not face a supply shortage. He could have been forthcoming initially and explained that masks needed to be reserved for those in healthcare, or could have argued that new research indicated that masks were more effective than initially thought. Instead, he effectively admitted to lying to the public.
In a few short weeks, Americans went from vilifying mask wearers in early March to suddenly vilifying people who did not wear masks. Surgeon General Jerome Adams tweeted, “Seriously, people—STOP BUYING MASKS” on March 2nd, 2020. And who can forget Matthew McConaughey’s “wear the damn mask” video from a few months later? The blatant dishonesty from our public health officials, coupled with the self-righteous trend of “mask shaming,” torpedoed the credibility of our public health officials. Let’s be honest: while there are certainly studies that indicate masks are effective at reducing the spread of coronavirus, there is little correlation between COVID-19 infection and death rates and a state’s decision about whether or not to impose a mask mandate. Indeed, recent data indicate that states which have lifted COVID-19 restrictions have lower infection rates than states with some of the strictest masking and lockdown policies.
Then there was the hydroxychloroquine debacle. Early studies suggested that the drug might be effective at mitigating some of the symptoms of COVID-19. Former President Trump promoted the drug in part because it was already widely used for anti-malarial purposes and could easily be mass-produced. Shortly thereafter, a damning piece of research from The Lancet (a prestigious medical journal that has itself become increasingly politicized) indicated that hydroxychloroquine was not effective against COVID-19 and, in fact, increased coronavirus mortality rates. Less than two months later, however, the Lancet’s editors redacted the initial findings due to ambiguous statistical modeling from Surgisphere, a company involved with the research. Evidently, Surgisphere employs workers who were not exactly experts in the field of statistics—the company relied on a science fiction writer and a model to conduct the study. In retrospect, hydroxychloroquine did not end up being a game-changer in the fight against COVID-19, but The Lancet study only served to further politicize COVID-19 treatments. Given the importance of evaluating potential treatments for the coronavirus, such gross negligence from a respected publication, intentional or otherwise, raised suspicions of political bias.
Gov. Newsom can dine with wealthy lobbyists while Californians were denied the ability to even celebrate Thanksgiving with extended family.
Of course, COVID-19 incompetence has not only been limited to the federal level. In the midst of the pandemic, while President Trump was being denigrated by the media, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was being hailed as a hero, culminating in a cushy book deal on leadership during times of crisis and an Emmy award. Indeed, as the hype surrounding Gov. Cuomo’s so-called “leadership” in the early stages of the pandemic reached its zenith, admirers began to describe themselves as “Cuomosexuals,” while the Los Angeles-based clothing company Canava manufactured women’s underwear in his honor. Meanwhile, mainstream media headlines hailed Cuomo as “America’s Governor” and the “most popular politician in America.”
As it turns out, Gov. Cuomo covered up the number of COVID-19 deaths that took place in New York nursing homes, triggering a federal investigation in February. (Of course, the scandal has only recently received national attention, even as conservative media outlets covered the story in the early stages of the pandemic.) Notably, the nursing home scandals are not limited only to New York: a federal investigation launched in August 2020 also probed the actions of Democrat-led administrations in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Michigan.
COVID-19 nursing home policies, of course, have life and death consequences. There is overwhelming evidence that increased age is among the most crucial risk factors for COVID-19. As noted in the journal PLOS One, “Epidemiologists are crystal clear: age is the most important factor in diminishing one’s chances to survive the COVID-19, especially after 65 years of age.” But it is also important to note the public relations failures of our governors. Gavin Newsom of California imposed severe lockdowns on restaurants and public facilities, only to break his own rules by attending a ritzy private dinner at The French Laundry in November. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf also imposed severe mask mandates, even demanding residents wear masks in their own homes if guests were present. Six months later, he was caught on a hot mic admitting that wearing a mask was “political theater.” Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer has faced a score of scandals, including her husband violating a ban on motorized boating and, more recently, her decision to blame Florida for her state’s COVID-19 spike after she herself decided to travel to the state.
In each case, state leaders have failed to lead by example and blatantly ignored their own rules: Gretchen Whitmer can fly to Florida to visit her sick father, while ordinary citizens have been unable to even attend family funerals. Gov. Newsom can dine with wealthy lobbyists while Californians were denied the ability to even celebrate Thanksgiving with extended family. These examples, while anecdotal, clearly undermine the credibility of our state officials.
POLICY FUMBLES OVERSHADOW OUR FRONT-LINE HEROES AND SCIENTIFIC SUCCESS
Incredibly, public health officials have continued to stumble, even after the election of President Biden. Biden inherited the vaccines developed under the Trump-led Operation Warp Speed and, unlike Trump, has had the full support of our scientific institutions and our mainstream media. Under his administration, 200 million Americans have been vaccinated, providing hope for an end to the pandemic.
Unfortunately, those who have been in the public eye during the pandemic, including our politicians, public health experts, and media, have utterly failed at almost every turn…
Unfortunately, in April, blood clots were found in 7 out of 7.2 million patients who received the Johnson & Jonson COVID-19 vaccine, leading the CDC and FDA to pause distribution, creating chaos as vaccine distribution centers across the country scrambled to cancel vaccination appointments. The two organizations explained the pause in a joint statement:
“CDC will convene a meeting of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices…to further review these cases and assess their potential significance. FDA will review that analysis as it also investigates these cases. Until that process is complete, we are recommending a pause in the use of this vaccine out of an abundance of caution. This is important, in part, to ensure that the health care provider community is aware of the potential for these adverse events and can plan for proper recognition and management due to the unique treatment required with this type of blood clot.”
While we naturally want to ensure that vaccines are as safe as possible, such a rash response to a relatively small number of negative side-effects has consequences: despite the CDC’s decision to re-issue the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, public confidence in the vaccine has plummeted, drawing criticism even from left-leaning publications such as The Washington Post. And yet, Dr. Fauci wonders why the public is reluctant to take the vaccine?
The COVID-19 pandemic has produced a multitude of heroic figures who are not in the public eyes: front-line healthcare workers, the scientists who developed COVID-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines, and members of the national guard who have helped distribute the vaccine, to name a few. Unfortunately, those who have been in the public eye during the pandemic, including our politicians, public health experts, and media, have utterly failed at almost every turn, overshadowing the scientific successes that have brought us to the cusp of a return to normalcy. The COVID-19 pandemic clearly illustrates the perils of politicizing science, and it is evident that new leadership is desperately needed within our scientific institutions to restore public trust.