ROXANNE KHAMSI It would be really nice if some of these health departments were more informative in terms of having some of this data at hand to say, OK, yeah, we actually made this based on some facts. Here you go.
BOB GARFIELD From shutting down schools to banning the sale of open toed shoes, official policies seek to stymie coronavirus, but based on what? From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield. The paranoia energizing the American right has old roots, very old.
JEFF SHARLET All conspiracy theories tend to have some similar structures. You've heard this song before. This is a cover song. This is not an original.
BOB GARFIELD Plus, Obama's chief White House photographer reflects on the makings of a lucky shot.
PETE SOUZA I've prepared myself for moments like that my whole life. You have to anticipate them. Unfortunately, I didn't screw it up.
BOB GARFIELD It's all coming up after this.
BOB GARFIELD From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, Brooke Gladstone is away, I'm Bob Garfield. This week, a quarter million deaths into a historic pandemic whose latest wave is ravaging the heartland came the news that public health restrictions to keep Americans alive are still an attack on liberty. Trump administration spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany.
KAYLEIGH MCENANY Yeah, I think a lot of the guidelines you're seeing are Orwellian. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Yeah, somethings Orwellian. It isn't masks. Meanwhile, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem continued to castigate mask mandates and other precautions even as her state's COVID infection rate has approximately quadrupled in the past 60 days. She's standing by the policy that welcomed 400,000 people to a town of 7,000 this summer for the Sturgis biker rally, leading to an estimated 250,000 infections.
KRISTI NOEM They're happy because they're free. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD And maybe because, as we learned this week, there's a vaccine on the way. In fact, two of them.
NEWS REPORT Moderna, issuing bombshell news when it said that their vaccine is more than ninety four percent effective. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT Pfizer reporting their vaccine is even more effective than first thought. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD But as we head into winter with widespread distribution of a vaccine still months away, we are faced with a reckoning. If a vaccine falls in the forest and half the population doesn't take it, will it make a noise?
NEWS REPORT So about two thirds of the country would need to basically be immunized. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD That is far from certain.
NEWS REPORT A new Gallup poll finds that 58 percent of Americans said they would get a COVID-19 vaccine. That's actually up from 50 percent in September. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Some are active actors who wrongly believe vaccine components are dangerous. Some are dubious of big pharmas integrity because it's been known to suppress clinical data, hide manufacturing defects and lately addict millions to opioids while denying the risks.
NEWS REPORT The company that makes OxyContin has agreed to plead guilty to criminal charges related to how it marketed the drug. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Others are skeptical of a brand new treatment developed at warp speed. Still others have been trained to disbelieve anything uttered by scientists and other elites. Orwell, has indeed had his say. Up is down and down is up. The upshot being that the long sought after world saving vaccine may turn out not to matter. This is the toll of demagogery ignorance and hatred for which no vaccine offers immunity. On the question of public trust, there is yet another irritant when official policies like partisan rhetoric also are arbitrary, inconsistent and sometimes untethered to science.
Writing in Wired this week, science journalist Roxanne Khamsi documented several cases, beginning with New York Gov.. Andrew Cuomo announcement that under certain circumstances out of state, visitors could quarantine for only four days.
ROXANNE KHAMSI When I contacted the state's health department to say, Hey, what study did you use to come up with that metric? They just sent me Cuomo comments saying we're we're really respectful of science and this is a good decision, but I didn't see any study, and I think that that's what I continue to chase is the studies. Particularly because the new research I had in front of me was suggesting that six or seven days was a better time to get that test, to know if you could exit quarantine.
BOB GARFIELD In Alberta, Canada, because people found it inconvenient to be isolated for a long period of time, they allowed incoming travelers to quarantine for only 48 hours.
ROXANNE KHAMSI Yeah, they tell you to please also get a test at six or seven days after your arrival, just to be sure, but like, what is the point of that? You've already been walking around potentially spreading the virus there. You know, I reached out to Alberta, I asked them to help me understand and I didn't hear back from them. The onus is really on people like me, the reporting on this pandemic to ask these questions, but it would be really nice if some of these health departments were more informative in terms of having some of this data, this literature at hand to say, oh, OK, yeah, we actually made this based on some facts. Here you go.
BOB GARFIELD This week in Iowa, where COVID is just out of control and where Governor Kim Reynolds announced policies on Monday, including this.
KIM REYNOLDS Starting tomorrow, when you're in an indoor public space and unable to social distance for 15 minutes or longer, masks are required to be worn.
BOB GARFIELD She also announced that indoor gatherings would be limited to 15 people. Now, science tells us that being indoors in a crowd is the most dangerous thing you can do right now. But evidently in Iowa, 14 people for 14 minutes is just fine.
ROXANNE KHAMSI This is tricky because there are definitely papers that say in a room of X cubic feet X, many people for X number of minutes, like there are people doing calculations to estimate how many particles of the virus will end up in the air and how safe it is and how likely you are to catch it. There's like tons of modeling. I think what you're getting at is my gut reaction, which is at this stage, until we're more like informed and feel more secure about that science, we might want to play it safe and just say, hey, like indoors is not a great place to be right now, particularly with dining. I think, like in Madrid, they closed the parks, but they kept indoor dining and people were just scratching their heads and saying, how is this adding up? In a year that's particularly befuddling, I think these rules just add another level of befuddlement, which we really don't need.
BOB GARFIELD If the subject is COVID theater, there's this other category of focusing on fine detail instead of the broader risks. You write about South Africa, which instituted a policy last winter, which is our summer on sales of shorts and open toed shoes. Open toed shoes?
ROXANNE KHAMSI So, yes, South Africa decided it wanted people to only go out for, like essential clothing for their winter. So only things that could keep them warm. And they said you could only buy cropped bottoms like shorts or things like that if there were to be worn over leggings. And like I have not seen that style since maybe the 1980s. I don't know who wears that style. But like, can I also just say that I like to wear open toe shoes in the house all winter long. So I would be really sad if they had instituted something like that here. Like what is winter clothing after all? I think it's nuts.
BOB GARFIELD I think I've buried the lead here because you're in Montreal and there they have some public health guidance, which I guess is about [LAUGHS] just tell me what it is.
ROXANNE KHAMSI In September, the country's chief public health officer, Teresa Tam, recommended that you skip kissing and that if you're going to have sex, you might want to wear a mask during it.
BOB GARFIELD Is there any scientific basis for that whatsoever?
ROXANNE KHAMSI I don't know if NIH would fund that. I mean, what would...it would be an unethical study, right. [LAUGHS] So, no, I mean, the short answer is I am not aware of any science suggesting that you are going to be much better off having sex with a mask on than with it off as it pertains to coronavirus.
BOB GARFIELD I want to talk to you about thermometers. I have had my temperature taken more in the. Past six months, then all of my previous 65 years put together, does being ninety eight point six or lower mean I'm not a vector?
ROXANNE KHAMSI I mean, no, right. This is the great paradox of this pandemic, perhaps. It's like we're getting our temperature checked all the time. And at the same time, what we're being told by the scientists is what makes this pathogen so special and so hard to quash is that it is readily transmitted by people who are totally asymptomatic. So, again, like show me the data, show me why people are running out to buy these temperature checks when it might even be giving us a false sense of security, and that's really concerning.
BOB GARFIELD All right. Now, finally, let's turn to the policy that has become basically the 11th commandment. Thou shalt socially distance to six feet. And that commandment has worked. I mean, it's influenced humans because it sounds so definitive. Where did it come from? And does it really deserve to be etched in stone?
ROXANNE KHAMSI Well, let me just say that if you're etching it in stone and you're in Europe, you're going to want to put two meters instead of six feet because somehow the virus can travel a little bit further in Europe than here, where we only have six feet. So, you know, maybe you want two stones. This stuff goes way back to like the 1930s where there was this guy, William Wells, who was a sanitary engineer, and he was just looking to see how far droplets went out of people's mouths. People were placed in these special honeymoon resorts where they would have pairs of people spending time with one another, figuring out how quickly the virus spread from one person to another. And they started to get an inkling, OK, three feet based on Wells's work, based on these experiments with people spending time in the same room, three feet seemed like a good rule of thumb. And that's how they got to three feet. You're probably wondering how they got from there to six feet.
BOB GARFIELD I'll be asking the questions here. How did they get from there to six feet?
ROXANNE KHAMSI [LAUGHS] So what happened was three feet seemed good, but then more recently, you know, with the original SARS outbreak in 2003 with swine flu, people started to look at patterns of transmission on airplanes. And they would look and see that people seated like a couple rows apart. One person would transmit the pathogen to the other. So three feet seemed like too short. Six feet was maybe like the distance between two rows of an airplane. And the problem is we're trying to reconstruct the logic by which the six foot rule was arrived upon, but we shouldn't be having to do this guesswork. It would be great if our public health officials put out a document and said, by the way, for the last eight months, you've all been wondering how we came to six feet. This is how we came to it. I mean, that would be a wonderful, if not Thanksgiving gift, like a Christmas present for all science journalists.
BOB GARFIELD What happens to public trust when authorities pose as men and women of action with actions that are meaningless or worse? You know, isn't there a boy who cried wolf problem here?
ROXANNE KHAMSI That is my deeper concern. Beyond my regret, at seeing how some of the literature on airborne transmission was ignored and how potentially lives were lost because agencies were really slow to act on that or at least relay that information to the public. I think that there's a deeper, more sinister threat here when public health agencies don't become more transparent. One is in the modern day right now, they're contradicting one another, which is already breeding skepticism. But then in the longer term, if we find out that these decisions, these rules that are kind of willy nilly, don't hold up, I think if there's a SARS-cov-3, you know, they're going to start on weaker footing in terms of convincing the public to do things because they've been undermining themselves by not being transparent. You can't be held accountable if you're not transparent.
BOB GARFIELD And then there's the adjacent problem, which is that science has been learning on the fly. When this all began, for example, we were told that, you know, masks were not relevant because the pathogens were smaller than the pores in the masks, and we were told that we should be concerned about surfaces.
ROXANNE KHAMSI I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to cut in, but you struck upon something that was so that I feel so passionate about, which is the we in that sentence that you just used. If you think back people in places like Singapore and places that had seen SARS, they didn't have this equivocation about masks that I think that "we" that you're talking about had. "We" in North America, for example, we didn't know is like, oh, I get chills when I say it because it makes me so viscerally regretful of the way this pandemic has played out. Actually, a lot of places knew. A lot of places have been doing things right. A lot of places looked at the science in a totally different way. I don't know what happened. Maybe the Internet broke down in 2020, but it doesn't seem like some of the information traveled from one continent to the other and it continues. Why is New York doing something different from another state? It doesn't add up. And what I fear is that it's only going to get worse. It's not going to get better. We're going to see so much diversity in rulemaking that it's going to drive us crazy.
BOB GARFIELD Roxanne, we thank you.
ROXANNE KHAMSI Thanks Bob.
BOB GARFIELD Roxanne Khamsi is a science journalist. Her article in Wired is titled The Lack of Transparency is Undermining Pandemic Policy. This is On the Media.
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