As Reuters reported last week, “A newly revised University of Washington model projects the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 will climb to just above 224,000 by Nov. 1 ... due to rising infections and hospitalizations in many states. But the latest forecast from the university's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation ... also predicts the death toll could be reduced by 40,000 if nearly all Americans wore masks in public.” As of Friday, more than 138,000 Americans had died of COVID-19.
We’re not the first to make this observation, but we still feel compelled to make it: So much of our response to the COVID-19 pandemic has involved magical thinking.
The American Psychological Association defines magical thinking as “the belief that events or the behavior of others can be influenced by one’s thoughts, wishes, or rituals.”
It is “typical of children up to 4 or 5 years of age, after which reality thinking begins to predominate,” the association’s Dictionary of Psychology tells us.
We could use more “reality thinking” these days. Because magical thinking during a pandemic is not at all helpful.
For instance: Testing fewer people for COVID-19 won’t result in fewer cases. Saying that a deadly virus will disappear on its own does not mean that virus will magically disappear. Downplaying the severity of a crisis doesn’t ease that crisis. Pretending that a crisis is over doesn’t mean it is.
We understand the very human desire to control by positive thinking something that’s raging out of control, stealing lives, ruining livelihoods and transforming our everyday existence.
But this pandemic requires stone-cold, sober analysis and scientific expertise. Not denial. And not wishful or magical thinking.
Beware anti-science forces
Hope is important, of course.
We were encouraged last week by news that a U.S. vaccine in development had triggered an immune response in those who received it, and it will enter another phase of clinical trials later this month.
“The hallmark of a vaccine is one that can actually mimic natural infection and induce the kind of response that you would get with natural infection,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which conducted the trial, told the Boston Globe Media health website, STAT. “And it looks like, at least in this limited, small number of individuals, that is exactly what is happening” — and without serious adverse effects.
But in that same STAT article, Dr. Paul Offit noted COVID-19’s unpredictable path. “I can promise you that over the next two years, we’ll learn a lot of things that we wish we’d known now,” said Offit, chief of the division of infectious diseases at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
And as Offit knows better than anyone, even once a vaccine is developed, manufactured and widely distributed, anti-vaccine forces will be arrayed against its use.
At an April ReOpen PA rally in Harrisburg, amid signs decrying Gov. Tom Wolf, state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine and the “tyranny” of mask-wearing, we were alarmed by the presence of anti-vaccination signs.
“No vaccination without representation,” read one.
We’re not sure exactly what that was supposed to mean — it may have rhymed, but it made no sense — but we know it spells danger for public health. An effective and safe vaccine for COVID-19 will save countless lives and return our world to some semblance of normalcy. We can’t let those who peddle junk science about vaccines foment distrust of vaccination in general.
It’s vital that information about the pandemic be trustworthy and accurate.
Which is why we were worried last week when the Trump administration directed hospitals to send COVID-19 data to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services rather than to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The administration said it was streamlining the data collection so it could better distribute drugs and supplies to states.
But because this is an election year, there were fears that the data might be manipulated to downplay the crisis.
Adriane Casalotti, chief of government and public affairs at the National Association of County and City Health Officials, told STAT that “any real or perceived challenges to the integrity of the data makes it that much harder to (gain) the full cooperation of community members in slowing and stopping the spread.”
Which is also why Wolf should have shared data supporting his imposition of restrictions on bars and restaurants last week.
It didn’t help that a state Department of Health spokeswoman told CBS21 News that “we do not currently systematically compile information such as how many cases in (Pennsylvania) originated from bars, restaurants or churches, in all parts of the state.”
Such data would have helped Wolf to make his case.
Transparency about data, and careful analysis of data, are essential. And when urgency doesn’t allow for acquiring data — when quick action is needed to minimize a looming threat — elected officials should be transparent about that, too.
What’s costing us
This will especially be the case as schools and colleges plan for the fall semester.
But wanting and wishing will not make it possible or safe. Only science — and a strict adherence to measures like widespread mask-wearing and social distancing — will make it possible.
A study published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association said that after a universal mask-wearing policy was implemented at Mass General Brigham, a health care system in Massachusetts, “the rate of COVID-19 infection among health care workers dropped significantly.”
Dr. Deepak L. Bhatt, executive director of interventional cardiovascular programs at Brigham, and a lead author of the study, said in a news release, “For those who have been waiting for data before adopting the practice, this paper makes it clear: Masks work.”
On Thursday, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany caused a social media storm when she said, referring to the full reopening of schools, “The science should not stand in the way of this.”
McEnany recovered by asserting that the science was on the Trump administration’s side. And she quoted Dr. Scott Atlas, former chief of neuroradiology at Stanford University Medical Center, who said, of reopening schools, “Of course, we can (do it). Everyone else in the ... Western world, our peer nations, are doing it. We are the outlier here.”
Sadly, we are the outlier, because “our peer nations” largely have gotten control of the COVID-19 pandemic, while we continue to break records for daily numbers of new cases.
The distrust of science is costing us. False theories claiming masks endanger health are costing us. False promises about how we can beat COVID-19 without making necessary sacrifices are costing us. False messages about vaccination will cost us.
We need to insist that officials setting policy during this pandemic rely on facts and science, not magical thinking. And that they share the data and relevant scientific principles with those who are called upon to make significant sacrifices.
We — all of us — need to be grownups who are guided by the science.