This is the third in my “portents and omens” series on the end of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S.
First omen: N95 mask availability
Source: Home Depot website accessed 5/11/2021.
On 4/5/2021, in Post #1097, I predicted that the U.S. fourth wave would fizzle out. That was based, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, on something that I saw as portent of the end of the pandemic: NIOSH-certified N95 masks, prominently displayed for sale at my local Ace hardware store. After a year of CDC-led PPE-shaming, discouraging the use of high-filtration masks by the general public, relegating Joe Citizen to cloth masks only, finally, those N95s were back in mainstream retail channels. To which my response was, they’re back in stock? Great, that must mean the pandemic is over.
But that raises an interesting question: What about Home Depot and Lowes? Those masks were the first thing to fly off the shelves at the start of pandemic panic-buying (Post #535, 2/28/2020). Then both major hardware retailers voluntarily refused to restock them. Have they quietly changed their minds? Yes. I can go to my local Home Depot and buy N95s again. As shown above. Just in time for the end of the pandemic.
Second Omen: Hygiene theater
Source: Washington Post.
On 4/8/2021, in Post #1102, I highlighted another omen: The CDC finally corrected its guidance on fomite transmission. That is, transmission of COVID-19 by touching contaminated surfaces. For the better part of a year, research suggested it was hugely unlikely that you could actually pick up a COVID-19 infection, in the community, by touching surfaces. And, about a year after the research clearly showed that, the CDC finally got around to acknowledging, in an almost-readable fashion, that fomite transmission is vanishingly rare. And so, after a year of shops, churches, and other public places vigorously disinfecting surfaces based on the CDC guidelines, the CDC finally, quietly, and indirectly, let us know that was all just so much hygiene theater (Post #766, 3/29/2020). It didn’t really matter, it just made people feel better.
New omen: CDC finally says that aerosol transmission is a common way that COVID-19 spreads.
Source: COMMENTARY: COVID-19 transmission messages should hinge on science. March 16, 2020, Lisa Brosseau, ScD, author, on line at the University of Minnesota Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.
I’ve been railing about this for more than a year now. At least as early as March 2020, experts had figured out that aerosol transmission was a main route of spread of COVID-19. That is, it spreads by tiny droplets that can float on the air for long distances. That was based, in large part, on the epidemiological evidence from China. In May 2020, our own National Academy of Sciences came to the same conclusion. (That’s all laid out in Post #693). In July 2020, a consortium of about 300 experts published an open letter in the New York times urging the CDC to focus on aerosol transmission of COVID-19 (Post #755).
But, for reasons that only the CDC will ever know, it was impossible for the U.S. CDC to mention aerosol transmission. They could not say the A-word. And when the did, in September 2020 (Post #820), they immediately had to withdraw what they said, under the pretense that it was a mistake (Post #822).
Now, finally, last week, in May 2021, the CDC has actually, truly acknowledge what the experts have been saying for more than a year. Yep, aerosols — tiny particles that can float long distances on the air — are a main route of transmission for COVID-19. You can see that made headlines in the New York Times and Washington Post, among other places.
If you can make the link back to the mask issue, then you really get it. Because the only masks that are really effective against aerosols are high-filtration masks such as N95 respirators. They aren’t just slightly better than cloth masks, they are vastly better (Post #942).
And so, in a spirit of well-deserved cynicism, I say, sure, now the CDC quietly changes its guidance, and indirectly admits that it had been stubbornly wrong for more than a year. Now that it’s far too late for this to have any material effect. Surely that must mean that the pandemic is almost over.
Summary: I hope history recalls just how disastrously wrong the CDC’s advice has been.
I should be clear here. Most of the advice that CDC has given in this pandemic has been somewhere between wrong, and disastrously wrong. And I sure hope that history records it that way.
The CDC initially said that COVID-19 was spread almost entirely through close contact with an infected person. And so, they said, all we had to do was keep 6′ apart — social distancing. Oh, and it might be spread through contaminated surfaces, because some other viruses do that. So wash your hands, too.
This advice was, in fact, dead wrong. And there was plenty of evidence at the time to suggest that it was dead wrong. But it was what CDC said.
And that advice — social distancing and hand-washing were plenty good enough for John Q. Public — gave a totally false sense of security, and in hindsight, did little to control the spread of COVID-19.
Just do that, and go on about your business, and you’ll be safe. For a disease where aerosol transmission is common, that was ruinously bad advice.
After being shamed into it by the head of the Chinese CDC, the U.S. CDC added the advice to wear a cloth mask. The cloth part of that was pure social engineering, not scientific advice. For some reason, long after the retail shelves had been stripped of all N95s, the CDC seemed to be worried that ordinary citizens’ use of N95s would prevent adequate supply of those for health care workers. Meanwhile, the U.S. FDA was barring the use of plentiful Chinese-made-and-certified KN95 masks, and so preventing the domestic shortage to be eased via international trade.
The upshot of the CDC advice is that even if you happened to own a high-filtration mask, and had some to give to friends, the CDC told you not to wear it. The advice was to wear a cloth mask. And that, in turn, generated social pressure (PPE-shaming) NOT to wear that mask. All thanks to the U.S. CDC.
When the dust finally settles on this pandemic, I hope all of that is accurately recorded, and not glossed over. The only way to improve, after such a huge failure, is to admit that it was a failure. If the CDC can’t get past that first step, we’ll probably be in this same situation the next time there’s a significant epidemic or pandemic in the U.S.
Addendum: And the CDC is not done yet with giving incredibly unhelpful and dysfunctional advice. Give this a read to see how basically unhelpful basic CDC advice remains, even now. In an era when the epidemiological evidence has strongly indicated that outdoor transmission of COVID-19 is extremely rare, CDC now puts the risk of outdoor transmission of COVID-19 at 10% of the risk of indoor transmission. So, in theory, if indoor restaurant dining has very high transmission risk, then outdoor restaurant dining is also risky? That’s sure bad news for every state in the U.S. that opened up outdoor dining as a safety measure.