Pell Center

The Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy at Salve Regina is a multidisciplinary research center focused at the intersection of politics, policies and ideas.

The Story in the Data: Wear Your Mask!

On Monday of this week, Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control, told the Journal of the American Medical Association that COVID-19 is not under control in the United States because “We have way too much virus across the country for that right now.”  It’s a staggering admission, but we know it’s built on real data.  Compare that to the actions of some state governments who have actually pulled data down from public websites because it paints an undesirable picture of the crisis playing out before our very eyes.

In Florida, Rebekah Jones was a data scientist for the state department of health until early May when she claims she was fired for refusing to manipulate data that would have shown that Florida was not ready to reopen. But this wasn’t the only story of data manipulation to emerge from Florida in May.  On May 8, Miami Herald columnist Fabiola Santiago documented a variety of ways the administration of Governor Ron Desantis was shading numbers.  Early that month, the governor’s administration moved to bar county medical examiners from releasing death data.  He also resisted calls by journalists to release data on coronavirus in nursing homes and assisted living facilities.    

Governor Desantis wasn’t alone in shaping the data to justify reopening.

At the end of May, the state of Texas was already nearly a month into reopening.  Governor Greg Abbott claimed he was making data-driven decisions and that the rate of positive tests  was a key factor in his decision to re-open the state.  Except the data was skewed and expert observers called it out.  The state was combining both antibody tests (which assesses whether an individual has ever been exposed to the virus) and PCR testing which tells someone whether they are currently infected.  To put this in mathematic terms—they were inflating the denominator—effectively increasing the pool of “tests” even if they weren’t all the kind of tests in question.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the White House, too, has a problem with the data it pushed as recently as two weeks ago.  On June 16, Vice President Mike Pence published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal taking issue with the media’s portrayal of a “second wave” of the disease, claiming that the United States is better prepared now than it was last March because we have so much more testing, with low positive test rates in many states, a plateau in cases nationally, and declining death rates.  Nearly all of that was based on a selective interpretation of the data.  There is not one big fire threatening the United States—there are more than 50 wildfires, each affecting local communities differently, and each with their own potential to flare out of control.  In this case, looking at national data swapped tremendous progress in the northeast—which was hard-hit in the spring—for back sliding in the south and west, obscuring the flames that were burning even then.

Now, as we head into the July 4th weekend, rates of infection are surging across the United States, including in places like Florida and Texas, but also California, and Arizona.  Public health officials across the country reported more than 42,000 new cases on Wednesday of this week—alone—with records for new cases set in Georgia, Texas, Alaska, North Carolina, and Arizona.  Ominously, Dr. Anthony Fauci warned on Tuesday that the United States could be on its way to 100,000 cases per day.  The virus is not controlled.

The reality is that this virus does not care how tired we are of living like this.  It doesn’t care that we hate wearing masks.  It doesn’t care that we want to go back to work, or over to a friend’s house, or even just down to the bar to grab a beer with our friends.  It doesn’t care that we want to hug our older parents.  The virus exists for one purpose: to reproduce, and it does that by infecting hosts who then infect others.  It will wait us out—unless we are smart.

And smart starts with wearing a face mask.  A peer reviewed analysis of face-mask declarations in 15 states and the District of Columbia between April 8 and May 15 found that states with mandates cut the spread of the disease.  A separate analysis from the Philadelphia Inquirer  found that states with less stringent face mask policies and orders had substantially larger rates of infection. The city of Hong Kong has 7.5 million residents, but since the outbreak of the disease, they have had only 1,234 confirmed cases and only 7 deaths.  Compare that to New York City where, while things are improving now, over the last four months, 215,000 cases have led to 17,757 deaths, so far.  The biggest difference between the two cities is simple: since the outset of the pandemic, an estimated 97% of Hong Kong’s morning commuters wear face coverings. 

In the United States, people more concerned with holding onto political power and restarting the economy than listening to the data opted to politicize mask wearing.  The tragic reality we all must confront is that lives are being lost and the economy will continue to sputter because of it.

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