BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Bob Garfield is off this week, I'm Brooke Gladstone. So a new COVID safety precaution has been making the rounds; double masking.
NEWS REPORT So if you have a physical covering with one layer, you put another layer on. It just makes common sense. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Sound advice. Why are we only hearing it a year into the pandemic? Here's Dr. Fauci. Back in March of 2020.
DR FAUCI China and South Korea, whatever, everybody's wearing a mask. Right now in the United States, people should not be walking around with masks. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE But East Asia's had more experience with SARS viruses than us. Wouldn't they know?
NEWS REPORT The coronavirus outbreak is prompting the US surgeon general to make a desperate plea to the public: stop buying masks. They're not effective in preventing general public from catching coronavirus. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Do you sense that maybe the authorities didn't trust us to do the right thing? Like saving medical grade masks for frontline health care workers? Maybe their impulse was right, but their method was... so wrong.
DR FAUCI Wearing a mask might make people feel a little bit better and it might even block a droplet. But it's not providing the perfect protection that people think that it is. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Our own Dr. Fauci even said they carry certain risks...
DR FAUCI And often there are unintended consequences. People keep fiddling with the mask and they keep touching their face. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Wearing a mask can also keep you from touching your face, but some physicians disparaged mask wearing is akin to carrying a rabbit's foot. Others suggested it might give us a false sense of security.
NEWS REPORT The Chicago Medical Society is worried that a call for general mask wearing will reduce social distancing. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Meanwhile, taking mask myths to another level, Texas Republican Representative Louie Gohmert blamed his mask for giving him the virus. Darn mask!
GOHMERT I can't help but wonder if by keeping a mask on and keeping it in place, that if I might have put some germs on some of the virus onto the mask and breathed it in. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Muddled messaging in Europe and the States spread confusion and suspicion, reckless optimism and hopeless pessimism. First over masking, then over vaccines, now over the variant strains. There are consequences to withholding the full truth, even to get the public to behave itself.
ZEYNEP TUFEKCI It creates this opportunity for mistrust, especially if the authorities don't really come clean.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Zeynep Tufekci is associate professor at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and contributing writer at The Atlantic in The New York Times.
ZEYNEP TUFEKCI They did kind of say, well, the evidence changed, but Hong Kong and Taiwan clearly had evidence. So the evidence hasn't really changed. It's more like, well, we were behind the evidence, which is more honest.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In your newsletter, Insight on Substack, you quote David Leonhardt of The New York Times, who says: a version of the mask story is repeating itself. This time, he said, it involves the vaccines. Once more, the experts don't seem to trust the public to hear the full truth. What is the truth that we're not hearing?
ZEYNEP TUFEKCI What he's trying to get at is the framing around the vaccines. We have hit, unexpected, amazing home runs with these vaccines. The first two that have been authorized in the United States, the Pfizer, Biotech and Moderna. You don't get any COVID at all for 95 percent of the people and for the rest of the five percent in both the Moderna trial and the Pfizer trial, there's about sixty thousand people total out of that sixty thousand total, there was a single severe case among someone who was vaccinated.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Even among the five percent for whom it wasn't, quote, effective, their cases were mild except for a single case.
ZEYNEP TUFEKCI One case qualified as severe, and her clinical description was that her oxygen saturation got down to ninety three percent. But she didn't need any other medical attention. She didn't need to be hospitalized. And that's the only case. Now, contrast that with the messages full of well, we don't yet know if they prevent transmission or you can't take your masks off yet or you can't do this and you can't do that. Those things aren't completely false, but they have to be framed correctly. We do think it's going to blunt transmission. We just don't have an exact number yet. In the preliminary study, Moderna found that even asymptomatic infection was down by two thirds. So that's really strong at suggesting that it's going to blunt transmission somewhat. Publicly, we will probably be wearing masks for a while because in public, you don't want to create two classes of people and you also don't know like who's vaccinated, but of all the things to emphasize right now, we have vaccines that are better than anything we had hoped for. Basically almost complete elimination of severe disease. So instead of celebrating this, because life is going to get back to normal when enough of us are vaccinated, it's full of headlines warning people about all the short-term limits. And a lot of anti-vaxxers have latched onto this saying if the vaccines are so good, why are there so many articles warning you nothing's going to change? People are tired and fatigued, and when we didn't get our mask messaging right, we damaged compliance and masking. And when we don't communicate the real upsides of the vaccines, when we don't get our messaging right, we do damage to trust.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Now come the COVID variants. And let's start with the ones first encountered in the UK and South Africa. I mean, we should be worried about a more infectious strain. They are 50 to 70 percent, maybe more transmissible. We were also told, though, at the same time that they were not more deadly, but it seems that if you have more cases, it means more deaths. And I recently heard on the BBC that these strains may, in fact, be more deadly. But you've taken issue with the worries that the media are now choosing to spotlight, right?
ZEYNEP TUFEKCI Right. I started seeing the data and I thought, oops, we got adaptive evolution here. Question number one is, what do I do in the short term? You have to up your precautions because if it's transmitting 50 percent more than it used to, it means that the environment that you got away with last time, you're 50 percent less likely to get away with it. We also have seasonality working against us, right. These coronaviruses are usually seasonal, this one appears to be so. So we have the winter dry air. Well, what about the vaccine? Moderna came out with a study which was really encouraging, which showed that while both variants UK one a less so in the South African one is a little more dangerous, they were lowering the neutralizing antibodies. But neutralizing antibodies are but one part of the immune system and they were so high to begin with, they were clearing the bar. So what we were hearing was that, you know what? It's going to work.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So when you objected to the San Francisco Chronicle writing Moderna’s Coronavirus vaccine protected against the mutations of the virus first detected in Britain and South Africa, but the antibodies were six times less effective at neutralizing the South African variant. It made it sound like it was –.
ZEYNEP TUFEKCI Six times less effective. They gave you the very wrong impression. The thing that went down six-fold is the neutralizing antibodies, that doesn't really translate into vaccine efficacy. I mean, I realize this is kind of getting into the technical weeds of immunology, but if you're writing a headline, that's what you should know. If you just put a six-fold decrease in the headline, you're going to freak people out because people are going to think, wait, like did we go from, you know, 90 percent to 30 percent?
BROOKE GLADSTONE So how effective is it?
ZEYNEP TUFEKCI Most people think it might go from, say, ninety five percent to say 90 percent. Nobody's expecting to go down to 30 percent. So the correct message is you and I should not be discussing neutralizing antibodies. It's not the public's area of expertise, and I'm just telling you what the scientists have told me. It will have a small effect. Plus, Moderna said they were working on a booster for the new variants, and a lot of people were saying, well, if they're working on a booster, that means this one doesn't work, whereas they clearly said, you know, we're just kind of keeping an eye on this. So my sense from seeing that press release and the paper, they put the paper out to us, it was like: "this is great," and they're already working on the booster. That's exactly what they should be doing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Some other framings you didn't like. Vaccines have been oversold as the pandemic exit strategy. From the Financial Times and a tweet from NPR which said, Moderna finds COVID-19 vaccine less effective against variant.
ZEYNEP TUFEKCI It's fine to say the efficacy will take a marginal hit and also to tell people the variant is a real threat. You're unvaccinated now. If you're like most Americans, you've got to be more careful. Let's be straight, let's say the good stuff, let's not give misleading information. Let's not put six-fold decrease in net neutralizing antibodies in a headline, as if that's something the public should be expected to understand. And that's going to make people not want to take the vaccine when they should jump at it. The media has to examine how it switches, like there's this hearding effect, where they dismissed the pandemic risk. They dismissed masks. They did this for a long time, and then when it flipped, there's a lot of doom saying now. I'm seeing articles saying vaccinations are not going to get us out of it. Yes, it will. The problem is we don't have enough.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You've said that the confused messaging, the wrong messages were being spread by officials long after the evidence was in. You wrote, maybe worst of all is the willful amnesia. It sometimes feels as if these failures were never made, as if we all just updated our COVID related guidelines when the evidence came in. In reality, you said, most Western nations were tragically lagging in their response. Also, the WHO.
ZEYNEP TUFEKCI You know, I talked about the CDC and the World Health Organization being late with mask guidance. We also didn't get ventilation guidance till fall, and it was a confusing thing with the CDC. We got something posted and then got it deleted and it got back. And I wrote an article about ventilation in July. Then I got inundated by people who are trying to plan how to open schools by all sorts of things like that. And they're like, nobody told us any of this because it wasn't part of the CDC guidelines. And the World Health Organization kept like talk about handwashing and disinfecting, which has a place, but it doesn't make sense to disinfect every surface, but not open a window when we know that makes a difference. There are all these things in which we were late, and I know that we were late because Japan wasn't late. Hong Kong wasn't late. The amnesia part is that once we catch up, we act like nothing happened. They just sort of say we got more evidence. Well, you know what? Japan had mask guidance, aerosol transmission over dispersion, which is like the clustering, in February. Why did it take us till fall? And with the World Health Organization, it took until December of 2020 before they started telling people to wear masks indoors, regardless of distancing, like that's 10 months late. So, there has been no explanation or searching of what on earth has been going on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So this comes back to your first point about accountability.
ZEYNEP TUFEKCI And even if it's partly because they were working under really difficult conditions with the president, we still need that conversation, and with the World Health Organization, that's a whole other thing. Like we need that conversation because these are institutions we need to trust. You know, the National Transportation Board, they do these no blame postmortems where the emphasis is on trying to understand exactly what went wrong.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Lessons learned. The military does it too.
ZEYNEP TUFEKCI Lessons learned rather than just, you know, firing people. We need that because, you know, for all my criticisms, they’re are excellent organizations.
BROOKE GLADSTONE They're all we have.
ZEYNEP TUFEKCI And they are who we need! Right now, with the new administration, I know it's been just a week, but it's urgent. We need our public health authorities to give us clear, actionable guidance on if they say “three-layer mask is better,” I don't want to play guessing games with old t-shirts. I want a certified cloth mask that I can purchase. If somebody is high risk or in a poorly ventilated environment, I want them to be able to say, where can I buy an N95? How do I best put it on? How do I take it off? How do I reuse it? They're not like some failing organization overall, they're amazing people. Whatever happened last year, on the whole, they're of course more right than wrong.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Zeynep Tufekci is Associate Professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and contributing writer at The Atlantic and The New York Times.
Coming up, the perils of intellectual property during a plague. This is On the Media.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of programming is the audio record.