There is an inordinate amount of speculation over whether people should be wearing masks when they are outside their homes. It’s what the media does – speculate. And in this instance their speculation follows their general focus on how something looks rather than how something works. A mask – other than N95 style mask worn by healthcare workers– only provides limited protection. And it is really pretty simple to understand why.
The COVID-19 virus is transmitted orally. Which means that it enters the body through the mouth, nose or eyes. The overwhelming number of masks available – including the make-do bandanas and scarves – do not cover the eyes and thus the face remains vulnerable even though you have reduced the points of entry by two out of four venues. (Okay, for those of you forced to endure a teachers union led education in the Portland public school system there is one mouth, one nose and two eyes – that’s four points of entry not three.) That is the basic reason that these face coverings are only marginally effective. It is even less effective in those who believe that the masks give them a larger sense of invulnerability such that they fail in the most fundamental tasks of evading the virus – social distancing and repeated washing of your hands.
On the flip side, wearing a face mask provides enhanced protection against you infecting another person. It retards the particles and the distance of that which you might exhale. So it depends on your outlook. If you are trying to immunize yourself, masks have limited effectiveness while if you are trying to protect others it has greater effectiveness. In either instance, masks do not excuse you from social distancing, repeatedly washing your hands and avoiding touching your face.
And while all of the useful idiots* blather endlessly about “to mask or not to mask” they are completely ignoring one of the most critical elements of dealing with this crisis over the long term. Over the long term we must not only defeat the virus through an effective inoculation program, but we must provide effective treatment for those who contract the illness WHILE we find a path to reopen the economy.
Dr. Deborah Birx is the Coronavirus Response Coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force and appears daily at the White House briefing on the efforts to combat COVID-19. She, along with Dr. Anthony Fauci, provide the detail, rationale and factual underpinnings of the massive effort to confront the virus. They do not speculate, do not point fingers, do not cast blame. Their knowledge and demeanor provide a stark contrast with the “hair on fire” of the useful idiots. And it is Dr. Birx who consistently talks about the importance of data based tracking.
But, while there is rapt attention to the data on the numbers tested, the numbers confirmed, and the numbers dead, scant attention is being paid to a number that Dr. Birx repeatedly emphasizes – the number who have survived. What Dr. Birx has said repeatedly is that we need to know who has been infected and recovered. But the difficulty is that there are a large number of people who have been infected, had minor or no symptoms and recovered not knowing that they had been infected. An Icelandic study indicated that up to fifty percent of the people found to be positive to having been infected were unaware of their infection. Apparently there is a relatively easy and inexpensive test to determine whether a person has been infected. It is a serum test to determine the presence of the antibodies developed by the body to fight the disease. It involves a finger pinprick and the drawing of a minor amount of blood to be tested. The results of the test are available in about fifteen minutes. The tests are accurate. It appears that the medical community believes that once recovered that you are immune from the virus – at least for a sustained period of time.
So why is this important?
It’s important because as the virus spreads so do the number of people who have recovered – with or without knowing symptoms – and are therefor immune. That population is growing quickly. And it is that population that is growing that provides a pathway for battling the virus AND reopening the economy.
In the first instance those with immunity can work in the hospital wards caring for COVID-19 patients without the intense personal protection equipment. They would only need the normal level of sanitized gear plus surgical masks to avoid infecting patients with something other than COVID-19. The need for high-end personal protection equipment would be dramatically reduced and the excess could be redistributed to areas where it is needed.
And those who have been determined to have recovered could provide both the necessary staffing and base of customers for reopening the economy gradually. Retail establishments would simply require proof of recovery – results of the serum test – together with identification for hiring and/or admission. The number of people eligible will grow as quickly as testing is administered. There is a theory that when the number of recovered plus the number not infected reaches a certain level it overwhelms the spread of the virus and things begin to return to normal albeit with the knowledge that washing your hands and refraining from touching your face are “best practices” for all of the future. (Given the experience with the length of “memory” over the events of September 11, 2001, I am not encouraged that the health lessons learned during this pandemic will stand for any length of time.)
I have said in previous columns that we have a short time to reopen the economy without sustaining significant damage and a long recovery period. Even as strong as the economy has become under President Trump, it will not snap back. Supply chains have been disrupted, manufacturing has been idled, small businesses that have closed will not reopen, financial institutions will be stretched from funding the interim relief during the crisis, and the housing market will sustain damage that will require significant lead time to recover simply because building construction is a lengthy process – a home takes nine to twelve months, a commercial building longer, a manufacturing plant even longer. There will be no snap back and the stock markets recovery will reflect that of the productive market.
The longer we wait, the longer the recovery time will take. Not just because of a delay in starting the recovery; rather the length of the delay deepens the hole from which we must emerge. Delay compounds the time for recovery. That is a fact that Mr. Trump sees clearly. That is a fact that most of the Democrat leadership cannot grasp. In a recent “daily briefing” Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) acknowledged the need to reopen the economy but downplayed its importance by spending much of his time discussing the need for us to accept the “new normal” – the Democrat’s buzz word for accepting the status quo. It is reminiscent of President Barack Obama’s assertion that economic growth of less than two percent annually was the “new normal” and that anybody suggesting otherwise was misleading the public. (The “new normal” disappeared overnight when Mr. Trump became president and took the government’s heavy foot off the economic air hose.)
It is coupled with the congressional Democrat’s firm belief that we can not whistle and walk at the same time. For them, there is only one course – treat the sick and seek a vaccine against future contagion – the economy can wait. That should be expected from people who have never accomplished anything in life other than getting elected to office. In large part, particularly among the congressional leadership, they have never created anything – never built anything, never manufactured anything, never created a job, never contributed to the growth of the economy – they have taken far more from the government than they have ever contributed. Many have become multi-millionaires while serving in Congress. They routinely serve themselves before they serve the public. They are simply unprepared by intellect or experience to “walk and chew gum at the same time.”
Regardless of the shortcomings of the congressional leadership, we do, in fact, need to whistle and walk at the same time. We are fully capable of treating the sick, finding remedies for its symptoms, and developing a vaccine, and reopening the economy simultaneously. In fact, the underpinning for treating the sick, finding remedies (think hydroxychloroquine) and creating a vaccine (FDA trials are already underway) are in place. It is time to place equal emphasis on reopening the economy and utilization of those who have been infected by COVID-19 and recovered provide the opening salvo in that effort. But that effort can only be capitalized upon if we do the serum testing to determine the presence of antibodies created during recovery. That testing needs to be almost universal but can start with those who believe they have had and recovered from COVID-19.
Starting yesterday would be a good thing.
*Wikipedia defines “useful idiot” as: “In political jargon, a useful idiot is a derogatory term for a person perceived as propagandizing for a cause without fully comprehending the cause’s goals, and who is cynically used by the cause’s leaders. The term was originally used during the Cold War to describe non-communists regarded as susceptible to communist propaganda and manipulation.”