When Gov. Kathy Hochul took office last week, she quickly issued a mask mandate for schools and advocated for a vaccination-or-testing requirement for teachers and staff.
Those moves – especially on masks – were widely lauded by school officials and predictably panned by political opponents, parents who want the ultimate right to choose on masking, and lawyers who are poised to launch lawsuits challenging mandates.
None of that was a surprise: not the praise, nor the outcries – and not the medical realities that underscore it all.
Every bit of this tension has existed for the last 17 months – but so have the facts, as researchers have learned more about Covid-19 and how it spreads.
Why, then, are we still grappling with the realities of science and medicine? In this Pandemic Lessons, we explore why it’s difficult to handle news we don’t like.
The frustrations with masks are clear: They can be uncomfortable and make it tougher to breathe. That’s understandable, isn’t it?
Yes. A good mask filters the air. That does, in turn, make it a little tougher to take in a full breath.
Covid, we should add, also tends to make it harder to breathe. But while you can pull off a mask for a few moments and inhale a lungful of air, you can’t take a Covid break.
The issue here isn’t people’s distaste for masks – or, more broadly, science-based conclusions. It’s the mic drop attitude of emphatic declaration: I hate them, full stop.
Dr. Nipunie Rajapakse, a Mayo Clinic Children’s Center pediatric infectious disease specialist, points out that summer camps that required masks saw less spread than those that didn’t, and countries with schools that required masking have seen fewer outbreaks.
No studies, Rajapakse added, “have found any adverse safety effects related to wearing a mask, even for the youngest age groups of children. There's absolutely no downside to it. I'll usually say, 'The worst-case scenario: It's mildly uncomfortable or inconvenient. Best-case scenario: You've helped either save your own life, or the life of someone else who may be susceptible to this infection.' ”
That’s a highly credentialed doctor at a globally recognized institution telling us that masking works. She’s one of a loud chorus of experts around the world who are telling us the same thing. Why, then, do some people still fight it?
One answer is ideological: Many people simply don’t like to be told what to do.
Another is exhaustion: People are tired of masks.
But deeper than both of those is an underlying sense of fear and anger that is chipping at many people’s ability to think complexly, and with nuance. You may not like something, but acknowledge it is necessary. You may not want to be told to do something, but comply anyhow, because, say, one of your kids’ classmates may have leukemia – and thus a weak immune system – and you want to help that child.
“Black and white, binary views feel safer than ambiguity and uncertainty,” said Kate Murphy, author of “You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters.” “It feels like you are more in control if you can divide the world into dark and light, good and bad, righteous and depraved, scientific and reckless.”
This can also make people feel “morally superior,” Murphy said. “They feel safe in their cocoons of certainty. Why would they listen to an opposing view when it would only be upsetting? They’ve already got it all figured out.”
Why do we struggle to accept the obvious?
Information can be exhausting, and our brains tend to absorb selective details rather than the big picture. When that happens, we can miss big, blatant things happening right in front of us.
In the early 2000s, experimental psychologist Daniel Simons and his then-Harvard colleague Christopher Chabris demonstrated this with a now-famous selective attention experiment: They recorded a video of people in white shirts and black shirts passing basketballs. In the middle of the short video, a woman in a gorilla suit walks into the middle of the screen, pounds her chest, and leaves. Chabris and Simons asked observers to watch the video and count the number of passes between people with white shirts.
After asking viewers the number of passes, they then inquired, “Did you notice anyone other than the players?”
Even with multiple prompts, about half of the participants failed to notice the gorilla.
A decade later, Chabris and Simons, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, authored a book, “The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us.” They devoted an entire chapter called “Jumping to Conclusions” to humans’ tendency to embrace stories and emotions over data and probabilities.
“We're not good at thinking about how unlikely something actually is when we hear a concrete story of it happening to someone,” Simons said, noting the effect of Discovery’s annual “Shark Week” television programming. “We’re far more likely to die from falling furniture than shark attacks,” he said, “but we don't hear many scare stories about dressers.”
What’s scaring us here?
Twisted information, which comes in many forms.
Here’s one example of information being gnarled: The Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, or VAERS, is a federal database that compiles reports of reactions and health events that happen in the days following the administering of a vaccine. If someone gets vaccinated and then days later is hospitalized, or dies, that is reported to VAERS, which is run by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration.
The database is intended to collect information so if there is a serious side effect to a vaccine, it can be detected, traced and addressed. What VAERS does not do – and this is vital – is establish causality. If a 97-year-old who lives in a nursing home gets vaccinated, then dies several days later, is the death attributed to the vaccine, or to natural causes that come with old age? If someone with a cardiac condition gets vaccinated, and weeks later has a heart attack and dies, was it the vaccine – or their failing heart?
Those are vital questions, and they would need to be answered by doctors and medical researchers on a case-by-case basis. VAERS doesn’t do this – it’s just a database – but that hasn’t stopped people from twisting it to spread misinformation.
Informational con artists will point out, for example, that 6,968 deaths in the United States have been reported following the Covid vaccine. While that number is large and scary it represents .003% of the 204 million people who have been partly or fully vaccinated, and .0019% of the total doses administered. By contrast, the 634,157 Americans who have died from Covid represent 1.6% of the total number of reported cases in the United States.
To put the deaths following vaccination in full context, it’s important to remember that older Americans, and those with life-threatening medical conditions, were often among the earliest to receive doses. Put another way: Massive numbers of people whose health was already vulnerable were vaccinated. That some of them died in the weeks that followed is tragic, but not necessarily surprising; the Covid vaccine does not cure heart disease, nor is it a fountain of youth.
“Death is part of the great circle of life, right?” said Dr. Thomas Russo, chief of infectious diseases at the University at Buffalo’s Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. “Who got all the vaccines first? Well, our oldest and most frail. A whole bunch of nursing home residents got vaccines – octo and nonagenarians who have a mortality rate in the double digits each year.”
Bottom line: The deaths reported in VAERS deserve examination, but leaping to the conclusion that the vaccines caused a statistically significant number of them is flatly illogical.