Hiltzik: The premature end of the COVID emergency rules

It is not necessary to be superstitious to conclude that the COVID gods must congratulate themselves on their decisive victories over common sense and safe public health practices in the United States.

Anti-pandemic policies are in retreat from coast to coast, in the blue and red states alike. Governors and city officials have revoked left and right social distancing mandates.

on Monday, an extraordinarily unqualified and inexperienced Trump-appointed federal judge in Florida, employing the twin weapons of federal law ignorance e special legal reasoning, the federal mandate of the mask invalidated for all public transport.

People still get sick, go to hospital and die.

– Epidemiologist Saskia Popescu

The ruling, which can be challenged by the Biden administration, subjects travelers and aircraft and train workers to greater health risks. That didn’t stop Amtrak and major airlines like United, Delta, and Southwest from immediately announcing that they would stop applying masking mandates on their routes.

Some airports and rail terminals have taken the same step, but others have not, with the result that passengers who had spent hours traveling without masks had to put them on again. reach their destinations.

All of this is happening just as COVID cases are on the rise again. Thanks in large part to the growing prevalence of the highly contagious subvariant Omicron BA.2, COVID deaths have increased in the past two weeks in 12 states and cases have increased in 34 states.

Nor should we forget the overall toll of the pandemic in the United States: total deaths as measured by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now exceeds 986,000.

The withdrawal of public health measures suggests that the country may be even less prepared for a future wave of COVID than it has been for more than a year.

“We may want to do away with COVID, but forcing our way through it is shortsighted” and “frankly ridiculous,” George Mason University epidemiologist Saskia Popescu tweeted after court ruling. “People still get sick, go to hospital and die.” We still need masks and vaccines, she wrote.

Consider the aftermath of the April 2 Gridiron Club dinner in Washington, where elite government insiders met with elite reporters. Of the several hundred participants who celebrate the freedom to bounce without masks or at least social distancing 72 came down with COVID in the next days.

We know this because the victims are high-profile officials and media stars. The toll between kitchen workers and other staff who was also exposed to the virus during dinner was not reported.

In political terms, the Biden administration is fighting a rearguard battle against relaxed vigilance during the pandemic. On April 12, Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra renewed for an additional 90 days the federal government’s health emergency declaration, the ninth renewal as it was originally declared by the Trump administration in January 2020.

The latest renewal came despite opposition from Congressional Republicans and even some Democrats. A letter dated February 10 signed by 76 members of the GOP House urged the administration to “accept that COVID-19 is endemic” and that “current government interventions with a heavy hand are doing more harm than good”. They urged the administration to “immediately begin the process by which we roll out the PHE so that our country can return to normal.”

What are these “heavy government interventions” that caused such letter writers shake?

The key policies implemented by the emergency declaration are rules that Medicare, Medicaid, and private health plans cover COVID testing (including home testing) without cost sharing; a 6.2 percentage point increase in the federal share of state Medicaid spending for states that cover COVID testing and treatment and do not exclude members from programs or increase their premiums; a 20% increase in Medicare hospital reimbursements to cover COVID patients; and an expansion of access to telemedicine services for Medicare members.

In other words, the Republicans who signed the letter were demanding higher costs for the elderly and low-income victims of COVID-19, greater financial stress for hospitals treating those patients, greater pressure on state budgets for Medicaid costs, and the loss of Medicaid coverage for millions of low-income Americans – about 13% of subscribersaccording to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The letter from the Republicans is a one-stop shop for everything that is wrong with the GOP’s approach to COVID.

Aside from the fact that the Chinese Communist Party, a gray-haired republican chestnut tree that immediately identifies the document as a partisan screed, opens with the pandemic, the fulcrum of his argument against the health emergency is a report from the Johns Hopkins Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise.

As the letter claims that this report “dealt a devastating blow to pro-lockdown public health officials and pro-lockdown Democrats” by determining that the lockdowns had “little or no effect” on saving lives, it is worth giving a close look at the report. It is deeply flawed.

To begin with, this is not an epidemiological study, but the work of three economists with long anti-lockdown backgrounds, led by Steve Hanke, a colleague of the libertarian Cato Institute.

It is a working document, which means it has not been peer-reviewed. This is presumably a meta-analysis, which means an investigation of previous documents, and concludes that “blockades in Europe and the United States have reduced COVID-19 mortality by an average of only 0.2%”.

This would be a remarkable discovery if it were true. As it happens, however, the evidence cited in the document is completely contrary. Among other critics, emphasizes epidemiologist Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz that the authors ruled out some of the most rigorous epidemiological studies in the literature.

“The included studies are certainly not representative of research on the blocks as a whole, not even close,” concluded Meyerowitz-Katz. Additionally, the authors of some of the included research claimed that Hanke and his co-authors misrepresented, or to be charitable, misinterpreted their findings.

Hanke and his colleagues have called any non-pharmaceutical measures “blockade”, including mandates of masks and closures of schools, borders, bars and restaurants. But they recognized that some of these measures actually significantly reduced COVID mortality, particularly school, bar and restaurant closures.

In other words, the newspaper is a mess and Republicans’ dependence on it is a serious misstep. If the Republicans had had solid evidence that “lockdowns”, however they chose to define the term, were indeed ineffective, they presumably would have mentioned it. They didn’t. The truth is that the weight of research on anti-pandemic measures shows that they have worked to limit the spread of the pandemic and the human toll.

The trend to lift pandemic measures has nothing to do with scientific or empirical findings. It is entirely political and ideological.

Americans and residents of other countries who have taken stringent measures against COVID-19 are understandably tired of the restrictions on their travel and socialization. But they have been conditioned to think of even modest measures, such as mandates of masks, as unsustainable violations of their rights, and have been fed with lies about the effectiveness of the measures, so they will feel comfortable living without them. Airlines are not abandoning their masking mandates because they think air travel has suddenly become safer, but because they are fed up with struggling with disturbed passengers who don’t care about the possibility of spreading the infection.

The most glaring lie being made by the anti-mandate crowd is that COVID-19 has reached an “endemic” stage. At this point, the disease doesn’t fit that definition. It is still mutant, still capable of infecting and killing people, especially those with considerable vulnerabilities, and still very, very dangerous.

The United States is nowhere near the level of immunity that would justify giving up all our defenses against this deadly disease. We are only increasing the possibility that if and when another dangerous variant appears, we will be in a bad situation.