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Pandemic Lessons: Why are we doing so badly – and how can we fix it?

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Schools are doing a lot of things right in trying to prevent the spread of Covid-19

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We’re not doing well.

Western New York’s positive-test rates for Covid-19 are topping 5%. That’s better than much of the country, but alarming in New York, which has managed to keep the virus spread largely under control through the summer and much of the fall.

On a Friday, Saturday and Sunday in early August, Western New York’s percentage of positive tests were 1.7%, 1.6% and 0.8%, according to state data. But this Friday, Saturday and Sunday, our positive rates were 4.3%, 4.8% and 5.3%. That’s markedly higher than most of the state, and on Monday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that much of Erie County would be restricted as a microcluster yellow zone.

This installment of “Pandemic Lessons” explores what we’re doing wrong – and how we can get it right. 

Why are our numbers so high?

It’s impossible to pin it to a single reason, but here’s a good bet: We’re taking the 1% approach.

Or put another way: Too many of us are acting like it’s still summer, back when our test-positivity rates were at a comparatively comfortable 1-2% range. That means people are likely gathering and road-tripping as as they would have during those summer days. But it’s chillier now, and parties tend to move indoors, where the more stagnant airflow allows the virus to linger and build and get breathed in.

But there’s more to the answer.

In the summer, people in Western New York could slide by in unmasked and overlapped social bubbles because the prevalence of cases in the community was so low. “You can do some riskier types of activities, but you might get away with it because all the people around weren’t infected,” said Dr. Thomas Russo, chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo’s Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

But when the numbers start rising, Russo added, it’s much more likely you’ll be interacting with someone who is infected. “And obviously,” he added, “if you're doing activities without masks, that's going to increase the likelihood that you will get infected.”

While it’s hard to pin down how outbreaks start, officials are largely saying K-12 schools aren’t to blame. What are schools doing right?

Schools aren’t perfect on this, and there can be a difference in Covid-19 protocols from one to the next. But schools that are doing coronavirus-era education right are sanitizing surfaces, controlling crowd sizes, creating ventilation by cracking open windows and monitoring the flow of hallway traffic.

But most of all, they are requiring masks – which scientists agree with increasing certainty are the No. 1 tool for stopping the spread. “That level of protection with the mask is probably going to be better than our first generation of vaccines – it’s going to be like 90%,” said Russo, who also noted that schools – especially with extracurricular activities and lunches, when masks are down, are likely “part of our driver” of rising numbers.

Masks are so politicized – they’re a significant point of stress – and now our kids are wearing them in class. Are we even seeing some of this contentiousness play out in schools?

Yes, in different parts of the country – although it’s early in the return to school to gauge the size and scope of the issue in educational settings.

Jonathan Schechter, an attorney with Gross Shuman P.C. in Buffalo, is the attorney for Niagara Charter School and has been monitoring mask-related lawsuits around the country. (He hasn’t seen any locally yet.)

In an interview with The News, Schechter pointed out the U.S. Supreme Court has reinforced political officials’ broad latitude in determining public health policy during the pandemic. Requiring masks in schools, then, can be considered “a function of public health and safety,” Schechter said. “(A) school's position is going to be, ‘Look, constitutionally, we have an obligation to make sure our students, our faculty and everybody is safe. So because everybody has to be safe, that is our legal grounds for forcing you to do this.’ ”

Most schools, Schechter added, are adopting policies that require students to learn fully at home if they refuse to wear a mask. That prompted at least one lawsuit to cite the famous Brown vs. the Board of Education case – which was decided in 1954. In that case, the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in schools is illegal.

In this case about masks, the lawsuit claims learn-at-home policies amount to “separate and unequal education.”

So while masks may be with us a while, so too, it seems, is the controversy that comes with them.

So, then, how do we return to normal?

Adjust our attitude.

Let’s turn to Dr. Michael T. Osterholm, a leading epidemiologist since the 1980s and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. In his book “Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs,” Osterholm writes about a virus that spreads across the globe, crashing economies, shutting down public events and triggering towering unemployment. He describes governments scrambling to stockpile supplies and develop vaccines.

He wrote that book in 2017 – and so he has a crystal-ball view shaped by research, data and a willingness to be blunt.

Osterholm was talking about how to navigate this school year, knowing that sports, activities and milestone events may not happen, and realizing that classes could shut down and go digital at any time. “Our job is to get the best out of this year that we can,” said Osterholm, who suggested three priorities:

1. Protect students, teachers and staff.

2. Help people who don’t have access to necessities like food that they would otherwise get in school.

3. Don’t blame. There will be families who keep their kids home. There will be families who pull their children from school but allow them to play sports – which to you, may not make sense – but to them, it does.

“The point is, how do we mesh all that up together?” said Osterholm, who President-elect Joe Biden named to his newly formed coronavirus task force. “That's where understanding has to come in. We can't look at this being good guys and bad guys. This is a bad virus and us.” 

What will it take for us to get it right?

Specifically, plan on the holidays at home. Write notes, send cards, log into Zoom.

But broadly? We need to change our mindset– and looking to Asia would be a good place to start.

Several days ago, Taiwan celebrated its 200th straight day without a Covid-19 case. It’s one of several Eastern countries that has managed to tamp down the virus. “It’s hard to argue with that data,” said Russo, who calls the Eastern-Western difference a “cultural phenomenon.”

“In the United States and Western Europe, we tend to be more egocentric and tend to be more about ourselves – individual rights and liberties,” he said. “Whereas Asian countries are much more community and family oriented, right? What’s best for family? What’s best for the community?”


Note: Do you have a topic or question you’d like to see explored in an upcoming installment of “Pandemic Lessons”? Send it to Tim O’Shei at toshei@buffnews.com or via Twitter (@timoshei). 

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