Politicians and bureaucrats are trying to control — and even eliminate — holiday gatherings this year. As a physician and public policy expert, I would like to present another perspective. Rather than unthinkingly accepting every recommendation or instruction, make your own choices.
Not long ago, people would never have considered the possibility the government could enter people’s homes to cancel their Thanksgiving celebrations. Then came COVID-19.
New York City mayor Andrew CuomoAndrew CuomoCuomo calls a sheriff who won’t enforce mask mandate a ‘dictator’ New York City to reopen field hospital as COVID-19 cases spike White House largely silent on health precautions for Thanksgiving MORE has imposed a 10-person cap at New Yorkers’ Thanksgiving tables that some sheriffs have refused to enforce. Three thousand miles away, Gov. Gavin NewsomGavin NewsomMajority want their states to stay open amid coronavirus surge: poll Newsom, family quarantining after exposure to COVID-19 One of Gov. Newsom’s children quarantines after potential COVID-19 exposure MORE (D) was called out for enjoying a lavish late-night indoor dinner with lobbyists and influence peddlers — sans masks — despite bans on indoor dining in much of the state. Almost immediately after the Newsom soiree hit the news, the California Department of Public Health imposed a 10 PM curfew on millions of Californians. Similar restrictions are being mandated across the country.
CDC has an extensive list of recommendations for the conduct of holiday events. Some highlights include no large gatherings, no singing, no loud music, no drinking alcohol, and no in-person holiday shopping. Stay outdoors, spaced six feet apart, and wear masks. Gone is the joy of spending rewarding time with family and friends — their psychic benefits ignored and unrecognized.
What is the science behind these claims? SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 is very contagious with prolonged, close contact. Therefore, there is no question social gatherings, as with any extended interaction with other people, pose a risk for transmitting and contracting the virus. However, for most people, SARS-CoV-2 presents an insubstantial risk of serious illness. Yes, vulnerable individuals are best to limit contact with others, including avoiding holiday events. But for most of the population, Thanksgiving dinners are not a significant risk.
The attempted micromanagement of people’s lives under the guise of an emergency represents a worrisome trend. The notion that people can be shielded from all risks is quixotic and dangerous. Once a population is accustomed to such encroachments upon its liberty, restrictions on freedom become ever easier to impose for new crises of lesser and lesser magnitude. Somewhere along the way, governments and their public health agencies morph from trusted sources of information and valuable educational resources to agents of subjugation and oppression.
Trust between health officials and the public must be earned. Once squandered, it is not easily recovered. Therefore, it is imperative that recommendations and edicts when handed down rest on firm medical and scientific footings. If they do not, that too must be clearly explained to the public, along with the rationale for abandoning usual standards of evidence. The latter instances would, hopefully, be rare.
Public health information and regulations must be issued and enforced in an unbiased, apolitical manner. They should apply equally to all citizens, including public officials, based on objectively agreed-upon criteria and considerations.
‘Experts’ also have undeniable biases and can be as swayed by political considerations as anybody else. However, because of the significance and impact of their pronouncements — and their absolute need to maintain credibility — they must do their utmost to combat such impulses. Most important is to resist shaming or censorship of dissenting opinions in the face of conflicting or incomplete evidence. Finally, health experts must understand that public policy determinations are multifaceted — involving social, cultural, religious, legal, and economic considerations — and even when solely confined to health issues, involve tradeoffs.
The announcements of highly promising interim results from three late-stage trials suggest Americans will soon have access to effective vaccines, perhaps in weeks. Mass immunization in combination with partial or complete immunity gained via infection will allow society to return to normal. In a short time, memories of COVID-19 will become a blur. Nevertheless, there are lessons to be learned. The need for accuracy, consistency, honesty, and, importantly, humility in pronouncements by elected officials, public health leaders, and experts is at the top of the list.
Dr. Roger D. Klein is a past advisor to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). He is a Faculty Fellow at the Center for Law, Science & Innovation at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University and an Expert with the Federalist Society Regulatory Transparency Project’s FDA & Health Working Group.