CDC Director Rochelle Walensky confessed to the agency’s failure last week. What was the agency’s failure? That is not so clear. The New York Times story on Walensky’s comments notes that unnamed others “said it was difficult to judge Dr. Walensky’s moves without more information, including the report she commissioned.” Indeed, Walensky’s “moves” remain almost entirely unspecified and those that are specified lack substance.
It would be pretty to think that Walensky counts the CDC’s guidance on lockdowns and mask mandates and all the rest as mistakes, but I doubt it. In his Wall Street Journal column “Fauci and Walensky Double Down on Failed Covid Response,” John Tierney draws the inference that they mean to give it to us doubleplusgood next time around.
Tierney usefully reviews the data regarding the futility and destructiveness of lockdowns. He numbers 170,000 excess deaths due to non-Covid causes in the United States during the pandemic and comments:
No one knows exactly how many of those deaths were caused by lockdowns, but the social disruptions, isolation, inactivity and economic havoc clearly exacted a toll. Medical treatments and screenings were delayed, and there were sharp increases in the rates of depression, anxiety, obesity, diabetes, fatal strokes and heart disease, and fatal abuse of alcohol and drugs.
These were the sorts of calamities foreseen long before 2020 by eminent epidemiologists such as Donald Henderson, who directed the successful international effort to eradicate smallpox. In 2006 he and colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh considered an array of proposed measures to deal with a virus as deadly as the 1918 Spanish flu.
Should schools be closed? Should everyone wear face masks in public places? Should those exposed to an infection be required to quarantine at home? Should public-health officials rely on computer models of viral spread to impose strict limitations on people’s movements? In each case, the answer was no, because there was no evidence these measures would make a significant difference.
“Experience has shown,” Henderson’s team concluded, “that communities faced with epidemics or other adverse events respond best and with the least anxiety when the normal social functioning of the community is least disrupted.” The researchers specifically advised leaders not to be guided by computer models, because no model could reliably predict the effects of the measures or take into account the “devastating” collateral damage. If leaders overreacted and panicked the public, “a manageable epidemic could move toward catastrophe.”
This advice was subsequently heeded in the pre-Covid pandemic plans prepared by the CDC and other public-health agencies. The WHO’s review of the scientific literature concluded that there was “no evidence” that universal masking “is effective in reducing transmission.” The CDC’s pre-2020 planning scenarios didn’t recommend universal masking or extended school and business closures even during a pandemic as severe as the 1918 Spanish flu. Neither did the U.K.’s 2011 plan, which urged “those who are well to carry on with their normal daily lives” and flatly declared, “It will not be possible to halt the spread of a new pandemic influenza virus, and it would be a waste of public health resources and capacity to attempt to do so.”
But those plans were abruptly discarded in March 2020…
Tierney’s column is behind the Journal’s paywall, but he covers some of the same ground before Walenksy’s confession but in slightly more detail in last month’s City Journal column “It’s time to award the Covid Nobels (but they shouldn’t to you know WHO).” Highly recommended.
NOTE: See also Jeffrey Anderson’s City Journal column “Masks still don’t work.”