Covid Minimizing on One Variable

Back in July or August, I was walking along Alvarado Street minding my own business. Suddenly, someone with a Monterey city government worker logo on his shirt came up to me and told me I had to wear a mask. I asked him to show me in the regulations where it said that. The sign above admits of no exceptions but the regulatory document is pages long. A local lawyer friend only a few days earlier had explained to me that one wasn’t legally required to wear a mask if one were exercising. I was on my daily quick walk.

So he pulled out the regulations to show me that there wasn’t such an exception. I walked over to look over his shoulder do I could show him the exception. He told me he was uncomfortable with my being so close without a mask. That’s fair, I thought, so I donned my mask. Neither Bill (his name) nor I could find the exception that my lawyer friend had told me about. For that reason, I wore my mask for the rest of my walk.

But when I got back to my office and got on line, I did find a 6-foot exception but not the exercise exception. I printed out the regs and started carrying them with me on my daily walk.

A couple of days later, I was starting out on my walk with no other pedestrians nearby when I saw a car with the Monterey city government logo drive by and turn the corner on the one-way street I had just crossed. I thought it might be Bill, the guy who had stopped me a few days earlier, but I couldn’t tell because he had had his mask on when he was walking. I figured I was safe because he was turning down a one-way street. Not wanting another confrontation, I ignored the fact that he was shouting out his window at me as he turned the corner, but I put on my mask just in case.

Then something amazing happened. Even though I couldn’t see him because it was a blind corner, I heard his car back up. He backed up all the way the wrong way on a one-way street and then turned to follow me in the road. He lowered his window to tell me that he had checked the regulations on line after having stopped me and that there was no exercise exception. I waved and thanked him.

But notice what happened. Bill thought that informing me of the absence of the exercise exception was so important that it was reasonable for him to risk backing up the wrong way when a car easily could have come around the corner and rear-ended him.

This was a microcosm of what’s so wrong with the regulatory mindset that so many bureaucrats bring to the Covid issue. Don’t worry about causing an accident because it’s so important to tell this pedestrian (me) what he had already told me a few days earlier: that there was no exercise exception to the Covid regulations.

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Charley Hooper on Masks

I posted recently about the discussion between Phil Magness and Jeremy Horpedahl about mask mandates to deal with COVID-19. My sometimes co-author and former student Charley Hooper wrote the following on masks in a recent email. He’s given me permission to share it. The bottom line: the evidence in favor of masks, let alone mandates, just does not seem to be there.

Here’s Charley:

The only randomized controlled trials conducted to study the effects of wearing masks and washing hands show that those two preventative techniques don’t significantly reduce the spread of the influenza virus. In some studies they help a bit. In other studies, they hurt a bit.

“Although mechanistic studies support the potential effect of hand hygiene or face masks, evidence from 14 randomized controlled trials of these measures did not support a substantial effect on transmission of laboratory-confirmed influenza.”

[Source: https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/26/5/19-0994_article]

Why did I mention influenza and not COVID? COVID-19 is supposed to be transmitted by the same mechanism as influenza and influenza has been around long enough to be better studied.
The Xiao study referenced above contains this shocking admission: “It is essential to note that the mechanisms of person-to-person transmission in the community have not been fully determined. These uncertainties over basic transmission modes and mechanisms hinder the optimization of control measures.” Scientist don’t have a handle on how the flu transmits throughout the community. If you don’t know that basic fact, it’s pretty hard to effectively prevent the transmission of influenza! By extension, I think it’s safe to say that scientists don’t understand how the SARS-CoV-2 virus is transmitted.
The influenza virus can last about five minutes on a human hand. (“Virus survived on hands for up to 5 min after transfer from the environmental surfaces.”) I suspect that the SARS-CoV-2 virus lasts about the same length of time on hands.
Therefore, if you don’t wash your hands but also don’t touch your eyes, nose, or mouth shortly after touching an infected surface. you should be fine.
There was one randomized controlled trial of the use of face masks to prevent COVID-19. The study was conducted in Denmark in April and May 2020. The results were not statistically significant but showed that the mask group suffered a 1.8% infection rate while the control group suffered a 2.1% rate (95% confidence intervals = 46% reduction to 23% increase due to masks). In other words, masks helped but were not a panacea.
Other studies show the benefits of wearing masks, but they are correlational, population-based studies that identify relationships but don’t necessarily prove cause and effect. I’m not saying that masks don’t work. I’m instead highlighting some of the scientific uncertainty around the use of masks. With this uncertainty, COVID absolutism is unjustified and harmful.
The rule seems to be that the less people understand about something, the more adamant their beliefs.

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Is Rand Paul actually wrong?

This Yahoo headline caught my eye:

Rand Paul’s Shockingly Bad Advice To Recovered COVID-19 Patients Fires Up Twitter

The story contained these competing claims:

The senator urged all those who have recovered from the coronavirus to throw out their masks and go out and enjoy public spaces because they are now “immune” to it. This is not true; there have been confirmed cases of reinfection both in the U.S. and abroad.

“We have 11 million people in our country who have already had COVID. We should tell them to celebrate. We should tell them to throw away their masks, go to restaurants, and live again, because these people are now immune,” he told Fox News host Martha MacCallum.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that reinfection is possible and that all people should wear masks in public spaces, regardless of whether they have had COVID-19 or not.

It is certainly true that reinfection is possible, but that has almost no bearing on whether Rand Paul is correct when he tells those who have had the disease to throw away their masks.  The question is whether the risk of re-infection is high enough to make mask wearing appropriate, not whether it’s zero.  I don’t know the answer to that question, but this article suggests the risk of reinfection (before there is a vaccine) is very low:

Following the news this week of what appears to have been the first confirmed case of a Covid-19 reinfection, other researchers have been coming forward with their own reports. One in Belgium, another in the Netherlands. And now, one in Nevada.

That doesn’t sound like very many for a world with many tens of millions of recovered Covid victims.

You might think that I’m just quibbling over a minor point, but I have in mind something more serious.  There’s a danger that people use measures appropriate for a very serious crisis even after the threat becomes far lower.

Consider this analogy.  The 9/11 terrorist attack was a severe shock to the US, with nearly 3000 killed.  After this event, we quickly took measures to prevent a repeat.  But then we went much further, taking extremely costly steps to prevent far smaller terrorist attacks, where the costs almost certainly outweighed the benefits.  My fear is that we’ll come out of this with mask wearing becoming somehow normalized, even for medical threats an order of magnitude lower than Covid-19.  For “just the flu”.

People who early on claimed that this is “just the flu” were rightly criticized.  But what is the actual risk for those who have already had the virus once?  I don’t know, but I’m not able to find evidence that the risk is significant enough to require mask wearing.

There are other arguments for having everyone wear masks in crowded stores until we have a vaccine.  It provides “social solidarity”, as customers might feel more comfortable if other shoppers have masks.  They would not be aware that the person not wearing a mask had already recovered.  But if that’s your actual objection to Rand Paul’s statement, then say so!

I’m a big fan of mask wearing and have no ax to grind on this issue.  So if I’m wrong about reinfections, if those who have recovered are still highly likely to get the disease again, then let me know that I’m wrong about the facts and I’ll change my view.

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Trump supported lockdowns

President Trump is such an unusual politician that people (myself included) have trouble seeing him clearly. For instance, Trump is often seen as an opponent of lockdowns. But while he did often speak out against lockdowns during the waning days of the campaign, he actually supported them during the period they were most restrictive.  Here’s a NYT headline from April 22:

Trump Criticizes Georgia Governor for Decision to Reopen State

“I think it’s too soon,” said the president, who joined several mayors in questioning Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, who had said some businesses could resume on Friday.

And here’s a tweet from April 30:

And it’s not just lockdowns.  I could easily dredge up Trump quotes for and against masks, for and against testing, or for and against any of a number of other policies.

Trump needed substantial votes from two groups that had very different views on Covid-19.  One group, mostly made up of his “base”, included small businesses worried about the economic effects of lockdowns, libertarians opposed to mask mandates, and Hispanic workers who lost jobs due to lockdowns.  Another group included moderate Republicans in the suburbs with professional jobs, who were economically insulated from the crisis but worried about the effects on their health.

It seems to me that early on he sensed that there was a risk of going too far “right” on the issue, losing those swing suburban voters.  Later in the year, it became clear that the problem wasn’t going away and indeed was picking up again.  At that time, he decided to go down the final stretch by appealing to his base with an anti-lockdown message.

I’m not sure that Trump had any good options politically (once the epidemic was out of control), although it’s intriguing to speculate as to what would have happened if he had followed me in questioning the experts (skeptical) view on masks back in early March.  The actual issue in which Trump questioned the experts (chloroquine) didn’t seem to pan out for him in the end, but by late April, experts throughout the world had basically decided that masks were indeed the way to go.  It might have been a big political win for Trump if he’d been ahead of the experts.  In addition, masks are a more attractive solution for small businesses than lockdowns.  In conservative Mission Viejo, almost everyone wears mask when in stores.  In contrast, very few people in North Dakota wore masks, and now they are paying the price.

When politicians encourage people to voluntarily wear masks, they are actually promoting liberty.  That’s because the more people that wear masks, the less political pressure there will be for lockdowns.

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Four facts about Covid-19

Fact #1  Today, most experts believe that widespread mask wearing and widespread testing are the best ways to control Covid-19.

Fact #2: February and March were the months when the epidemic in America got out of control, when public policy was most decisive.

Fact #3: During February and March, public health officials actively discouraged testing.

Fact #4: During February and March, public health officials actively discouraged mask wearing.

Alaska was down to only 38 cases in mid-May, before exploding upward:

New Zealand was down to 65 cases, and kept falling:

Consider the following two stories from yesterday’s news.  Think about the media sources where these individuals may have gotten their ideas:

 

For a while, the US was doing better than Europe.  Now we have more total deaths despite a far smaller population, a younger population, less dense cities, less public transit, being initially hit less hard, and far more spending on health care.  And the gap is getting bigger—a month from now we’ll be doing much worse than Europe.

HT:  Matt Yglesias

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The totalitarian temptation

Opponents of libertarianism often point out that there are cases where government mandates can be welfare improving. I accept that argument, but not the implications that people draw from that fact.

The real question is not whether government power can make things better; it is whether government power will make things better, on average. I believe the answer is no.

I recently saw an article on mask regulations that made me almost burst out laughing:

After previously prohibiting local jurisdictions from imposing mask mandates, Mr. Abbott, a Republican, issued an executive order Thursday requiring residents to wear masks in public spaces, except in counties with 20 or fewer cases of coronavirus. Cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, have been rising for weeks in the state.

Notice the governor’s supreme confidence in his wisdom.  A week ago he was so confident that mask mandates were a bad idea that he banned local governments—which presumably know their situation better than someone in faraway Austin—from mandating the wearing of masks.  He didn’t recommend against local mask mandates, he banned them.  Today this same individual is so confident that mandates are a good idea that he is requiring many local governments to ban masks.  He’s not recommending they do so, he’s requiring mask bans.

This is not about whether mask wearing is a good idea (I favor mask wearing and private sector mandates but oppose government mandates), this is about whether we can trust government officials to recognize that they don’t have all the answers, and that sometimes they should allow others to decide for themselves.  As soon as one gives power to government officials they will abuse that power, they will assume they know what’s best for us.

Pierre Lemieux has a new post that provides another such example.  He cites a WSJ article on masks:

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams tweeted on Feb. 29: “Seriously people—STOP BUYING MASKS!” He has since apologized and now supports wearing them.

White House adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci said this month that he initially dismissed masks because medical workers were facing a shortage in supplies. He, too, is now an advocate.

I can’t overstate the damage done by these lies.  It would be one thing if the authorities had said, “masks are effective, but we have a shortage so don’t wear them.”  Even that would be slightly misleading, as the shortage was created by the government.  Instead they lied and said masks are not effective, as a way to discourage their use.  These government officials assumed that the public could not be trusted with true information.

In the future, public health officials might recommend that children be vaccinated for the measles, and people will recall when they were lied to about the efficacy of masks.

Over time, government mandates become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The government has so many mandates that the public begins to assume that if something is not banned it must be safe.  They might assume that if masks are not required then they must be unneeded.  It then becomes more difficult to get voluntary compliance.

We’ve seen this in banking, where people stopped paying attention to the safety and soundness of banks after FDIC was instituted.  Before deposit insurance was mandated, people were very reluctant to deposit money in banks that were making lots of risky loans.  Now they don’t care.  If the public is treated like little children, they begin to behave like children.  Government power advocates then say, “see, the public is infantile and they must be told what to do.”

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Masks: Dr. Fauci Confirms My Hypothesis

According to a Wall Street Journal story of June 29 (“Masks Could Help Stop Coronavirus. So Why Are They Still Controversial?”), Dr. Anthony Fauci confirmed a hypothesis I proposed in an Econlog post of the same day: the long-lasting detrimental advice by the US government against ordinary people wearing masks was motivated by their shortage. This shortage was itself created by the governments’ own price-controls and their efforts to commandeer the consequently insufficient quantity supplied. The WSJ writes:

White House adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci said this month that he initially dismissed masks because medical workers were facing a shortage in supplies.

The link in the quote above points to a June 16 WSJ story that does not in fact mention anything like that—but the story might have been modified (as happens often) and I missed a previous version.

One example of the (obvious) usefulness of masks given by the Wall Street Journal:

In Asia, the majority of people voluntarily use face coverings and it is mainly Western expatriates who are reluctant to adopt them, said Prof. Yuen Kwok-Yung, a leading coronavirus expert who advises the Hong Kong government.

Hong Kong, with 7.5 million residents, is one of the most densely populated places on earth, but recorded only six deaths from Covid-19 despite having no lockdown and receiving nearly 350,000, [sic] travelers a day from abroad until authorities started reducing cross-border travel on January 30. Around half of the arrivals were from mainland China, where the virus originated.

The key secret of Hong Kong’s success, Prof. Yuen said, is that the mask compliance rate during morning rush hour is 97%.

Export controls by foreign governments (remember that the US government also restricted exports) have worsened the problem created by price controls and the Defense Production Act. As usual, more government dirigisme does not improve production and allocation.

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