Blue state governors are lifting mask mandates. So is Muriel E. Bowser (D), mayor of the nation’s capital. And everyone saw what happened Sunday at the Super Bowl in the crowded, sort-of-outdoors environs of SoFi Stadium: Even though the Los Angeles County health department had said masks were required, just about the only people with their faces covered were the ones wearing helmets.
But the easing of the coronavirus pandemic’s grip is hardly a serene moment. The country is witnessing a broad backlash from many conservatives and libertarians, not only against the ongoing mask mandates but against the past two years of public health measures, including school closures, designed to suppress the spread of the virus. As the fall elections approach, the virus itself isn’t the hot topic so much as the response to it.
It turns out that winding down a pandemic response is in many ways much harder than launching a response when the virus is new, fresh and at its scariest. And in the pell-mell rush for the pandemic exits, even some people who were formerly supportive of public health measures designed to suppress the virus now don’t want anyone standing in their way.
“Public health is sort of the bearer of bad news. This is basically a kill-the-messenger phenomenon,” said Yale University epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves, who has been a vocal proponent of continuing measures to protect the most vulnerable communities.
The virus is still killing people in startling numbers. Although infections are dropping fast, and hospitalizations too, deaths from covid-19 have not fallen at the same pace. The latest data show about 2,300 people every day, on average, dying of the disease.
The current state of the pandemic has put Biden administration officials and many disease experts in an awkward position. They need to persuade people to stick with the program a bit longer, until the virus is brought under control. But they run the risk of losing their audience. Polling data show President Biden with drooping approval ratings for his handling of the pandemic.
At a White House task force news briefing Wednesday, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky tried to assure the public that she and her colleagues understand the exhaustion with masking guidance and other pandemic restrictions. The problem is the data: By the CDC’s count, 97 percent of U.S. counties still have “substantial” or “high” community transmission of the virus.
As the case counts plummet, though, CDC guidance on masking and other issues will change in the coming weeks, she promised.
“We want to give people a break from things like mask-wearing when these metrics are better, and then have the ability to reach for them again should things worsen,” Walensky said. “We all share the same goal: to get to a point where covid-19 is no longer disrupting our daily lives, a time when it won’t be a constant crisis, rather something we can prevent, protect against and treat.”
Many disease experts feel passionately that now is not the time to let up on efforts to suppress the virus. But another faction of experts favors what Walensky suggested may be the next step forward — an easing of restrictions, coupled with a determination to restore them if the virus comes roaring back.
The broader public conversation is more tendentious. Opponents of public health measures have argued that anyone wanting restrictions at this point is a pandemic dead-ender — someone who won’t let it go, and is clinging to the crisis.
Epidemiologist Mercedes Carnethon of Northwestern University went on national television programs recently to share her view that vulnerable populations still need protection and that people need to keep taking sensible measures to suppress the virus — such as wearing masks.
The hate mail hit her inbox immediately.
“Stop your idiotic blithering fear mongering already,” one correspondent wrote. Another implied Carnethon is a “big pharma prostitute” and lamented commentary from “know nothing clowns.”
“Civility is gone,” said Carnethon, a professor and vice chair of preventive medicine at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “I think it may be driven by fear — fear that we’ll never get out of this.”
Gonsalves said, “We need to stay vigilant and consider not just dialing down [precautions] but dialing up.”
Many people, he said, want to go back to how life was in 2019, but “wishing doesn’t make it so.”
Celine Gounder, an infectious-disease physician who advised Biden during the presidential transition and is now editor at large for public health at Kaiser Health News, said the backlash against people in her profession is demoralizing.
“I feel trust in public health is at an all-time low, and it’s being shredded even more in this moment. It’s in tatters at this moment,” she said. “Public health interventions don’t work without trust.”
That distrust is omnipresent in conservative news media, and on display in public hearings on Capitol Hill, where Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has grilled the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Anthony S. Fauci, as if Fauci had gone on a crime spree.
Biden may have been boosted in his 2020 campaign by arguing that President Donald Trump had done too little to halt the pandemic, but Republicans seeking office are generally making the opposite argument — that the government has done too much. “Faucism” is the preferred neologism to describe what are alleged to be excessive restrictions.
Backers of the more cautious approach are expressing themselves on social media, but they are not an organized bunch — they aren’t marching on the capital, as opponents of restrictions have, and they are not blocking the U.S.-Canadian border like the truckers in Canada. And there could be more protests ahead, as one group with more than 99,000 Facebook members is planning a trucker-led convoy across the United States in early March, with D.C. as the destination.
Biden’s messaging in this recent phase has been muddled. In an interview, NBC’s Lester Holt asked the president if he thought the blue state governors were acting prematurely in lifting mandates even as the CDC continues to recommend indoor masking.
“I’ve committed that I would follow the science. The science as put forward by the CDC, and the federal people, and I think it’s probably premature, but it’s, you know, it’s a tough call,” Biden answered.
The virus isn’t static: The virus mutates, new variants appear. The omicron wave may be receding, but a new variant could roll up at any point from an unexpected branch of the virus’s family tree.
Evolving, too, is the immunological landscape as people get vaccinated or recover from infections. Most people now have some immunity to the virus, but millions may have limited or even no immunity, even after vaccination, because they are immunocompromised or immunosuppressed. This population includes organ transplant and cancer patients, as well as people with autoimmune diseases requiring medication to tamp down their immune systems. Some people with severe health issues cannot get vaccinated at all.
This leads to public health judgment calls. The CDC when issuing guidance has generally erred on the side of caution, in part because it has been burned by premature moves such as last May’s decision to lift indoor masking for vaccinated people — just as the delta variant was gaining traction.
Many Americans — including the ones emailing Carnethon — blame public health proponents for prolonging the crisis and preventing the return to normal. That leads to the next turn of the screw: If a lingering effect of the pandemic is that people view public health interventions as overreach, or somehow corrupted by factors other than saving lives, the country will be in worse shape the next time a virus comes roaring out of nowhere, sickening people en masse.
That’s the conclusion of Andrew Noymer, a University of California at Irvine epidemiologist, who, when asked what the big lesson of the pandemic is, replied in an email that “public health as an intellectual endeavor is weak; its own subject-matter experts get swept aside in a crisis,” and “we are less, not more, prepared for the next pandemic, after this.”
Much of the rancor and unhappiness dates to early in the pandemic — the revolt against masking, led by red state Republican officials and libertarians generally — was well underway by summer 2020. But lately, some of the calls of no-more-restrictions are coming from inside the house: Many former supporters of pandemic interventions have moved to the other side, saying the lower caseloads and availability of vaccines and therapeutics mean it’s time to fully reopen society — even if the CDC continues to endorse indoor masking in schools and in areas with substantial or high coronavirus transmission.
“Open Everything” declared an article in the Atlantic by Yascha Mounk, a former supporter of interventions. An organization called Urgency of Normal is pushing for an end to mask mandates in schools, saying in its mission statement that continued pandemic restrictions are now a greater threat to students than the virus: “Children — and their parents — have shouldered an outsize burden long enough. Restoring normal childhood is a moral imperative, based on the balance of today’s evidence.”
Some disease experts bristle at that argument, saying it reflects the views of healthy people in privileged strata of society. In more vulnerable areas, schools lack good ventilation, vaccine uptake is relatively low, and students are more likely to live in multigenerational families with elderly members who have a higher risk of severe disease from the virus.
Gonsalves expressed that in pungent terms in a long Twitter thread recently:
“This isn’t my first time at the rodeo. With HIV, I saw how very privileged people were willing to f — over others and let a virus flourish in the US and around the world, once they personally had access to potent antiretroviral drugs,” he wrote.
Gounder said she suspects some of the pushback against restrictions comes from vaccinated people who think they earned a return to normalcy: “I think people feel like, ‘I followed the rules, I should be able to get on with my life.’ ”