Guest columnist Dr. Shelly Berkowitz: We may be done with COVID, but COVID is not done with us

Published: 8/21/2022 4:03:47 PM
Modified: 8/21/2022 4:00:13 PM

Gregg Schwartz in his Aug. 17 guest column, “The never-ending Northampton mask mandate,” complains that requiring students to mask up during school hours harms them, and that the continued caution of the Northampton School Committee is “shocking” in view of the new CDC recommendations and the general trend toward relaxation of COVID restrictions.

He goes on to conclude: “We owe it to our children, each of us, to see past our own emotion and fear, and to have the bravery to follow the clear, indisputable science of our best doctors and researchers and of the CDC. That hard science absolutely says that masks, unless we are in ‘red,’ are unwarranted and are hurting our kids.”

However, the clear, indisputable, hard science had absolutely nothing to do with the CDC decision to relax guidelines, according to Katherine Wu in her recent piece in The Atlantic, “The Pandemic’s Soft Closing.” Rather, Wu asserts that the CDC has simply caved to public pressure and retrofitted its policy to fit political agendas.

Wu makes it clear that the CDC decision is not based on COVID-19’s status “on the ground,” where omicron is burning out of control with new cases coasting along nationally at 150,000 daily (since home testing seldom makes it into “official” tallies, the omicron infection numbers are clearly far higher than CDC posts indicate). Daily death counts are often (according to the Worldometers website) as high as 600 nationally — higher than the COVID carnage in the summer of 2021 when a fall spike loomed as death counts exploded to over 3,000 per day.

There is no statistical argument to be made for relaxed vigilance, and RupaliLimaye, a public health researcher at John Hopkins (quoted in Wu’s piece) stated: “It’s like they’re throwing their hands in the air, people are not going to follow the guidance, so let’s just loosen them up.”

Wu also quotes Ariana Marie Planey, a researcher at the University of North Carolina’s school of global public health, who calls the new CDC guidelines, “a wholesale abandonment of a community-centric mindset.”

A great many public health researchers have opposed the new CDC guidelines and Mr. Schwartz is mistaken if he believes that the current CDC position is a gauge of medical consensus. For example, The Nation just published a piece by medical anthropologist, Martha Lincoln, called “Stop Telling Americans That They’re ‘Tired of Covid,’” that excoriated President Joe Biden for pushing a strategy of normalizing and accepting terrible levels of illness and death.

With midterm elections around the corner it is hardly a stretch of the imagination to assume that the fate of the Democratic Party is tied to the perception that the pandemic is under control and that we are “safely returning to normal.” The abduction of the COVID narrative for political gain did not go well for the Republicans who lied and minimized while overseeing the worst pandemic blood bath among all western democracies. Now, with experts predicting a probable omicron spike this fall, the Democrats are risking their own political disaster should predictions come true.

Mr. Schwartz also drops the trope that masks harm kids – an assumption that is wildly promoted in propaganda from libertarian and other right wing think tanks, but is this really true? Psychologist Judith Danovitch wrote in the New York Times last year: “Wearing masks during a pandemic is an opportunity for even young children to practice caring for their community.”

Danovitch also argues that mask wearing increases self-control and encourages children to be more aware of subtle aspects of communication. This is not to dismiss concerns about mask wearing, but rather, to emphasize that the blanket claim that masks hurt kids is in no way embraced as the “given” that Mr. Schwartz appears to believe that it is.

There is also the matter of the harm that COVID does to kids that may be much worse than we once imagined. Long COVID in children is a real thing but research is still needed to understand the prevalence. COVID likely causes long-term and permanent cognitive damage in some children, and that may result in devastating social and individual consequences.

According to a recent piece in Time Magazine, only 30% of 5-11 year olds are fully vaccinated, which means there is a huge pool of potential young COVID sufferers who are about to enter a new era on the pandemic timeline. Do we in Northampton want to take risks with the growing brains of children who are confronted with eroding protections against an illness with a significant risk of neuro-cognitive harm?

I recently read a quote (but do not recall who said it) — it goes like this: “We may be done with COVID, but COVID is not done with us.”

Dr. Shelly Berkowitz lives in Northampton.

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