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Latest mask study prompts more questions than answers

“We saw how COVID-19 was politicized and became a political talking point rather than a public health talking point.”Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, Michigan’s chief medical executive.

When COVID-19 hit Michigan three years ago, the state implemented a policy of masks, shutdowns, and isolation.

What if that was a mistake? Does anyone in charge want to know? Or will they dig in their heels, defending earlier decisions even as evidence indicates other courses of action might have been preferable?

It’s a fair question, especially in light of a report issued by the Cochrane Institute, a British organization that is highly regarded in the international medical field. Based on its review, Cochrane found no conclusive evidence that masks – whether run-of-the-mill variety or higher quality N95s – offered community protection from the spread of respiratory illnesses, including COVID, which was the subject of six of the 78 studies.

Masks, the studies concluded, can be good for individuals or in specific locations, such as hospitals, but – as clarified in a later statement – it was not clear that masks, especially when not used religiously, were effective for the larger purpose of protecting against community spread. It was the community-safety aspect that governments used to justify mask mandates.

It’s unfair to criticize state officials for decisions made in March 2020 when the first two confirmed COVID cases where identified in Michigan. No one knew then what the pandemic would be like, how deadly would it be, nor how easily it would spread. Certainly no one knew that a safe, effective vaccine would be developed and distributed nationwide in fewer than nine months. Nor could anyone foresee the strains on hospitals and the disgraceful inability to supply basic medical equipment, including masks.

But now there is time for reflection that could lead to possibly better decision-making in the face of almost certain future health threats. The outlook isn’t immediately promising as Michigan and federal officials have been dismissive of the Cochrane findings, even while carefully praising Cochrane’s reputation.

Specifically, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and her allies seem focused on painting the governor’s actions as brave, courageous and life-saving while dismissing her critics as crazed, MAGA-influenced outliers. And, in truth, it was easy to find protestors who fit that out-of-control portrait. But that doesn’t mean that critics didn’t have legitimate points.

Further, the narrative that Whitmer’s decisive actions saved lives doesn’t mesh with the data. Michigan has suffered more than 42,000 COVID deaths in three years, a rate that is the ninth highest in the nation and the highest among northern, eastern and industrial states. Michigan’s death rate is higher than that of Florida despite the Sunshine State’s older population and relatively open policies. Michigan’s death rate is also higher than those of neighboring Ohio and Indiana.

Figures lie and liars figure, and there can be any number of reasons for the disparate death rates. But those should be examined and explained to determine future strategies, rather than blithely touted as signs of sainthood for the governor.

Were Whitmer’s decisions influenced more by science or by political science? At times, she seemed to preach one sermon for the public and practice a different course for herself. Early on she forbade outdoor landscape work so that low-income employees didn’t have to go to gas stations even while her husband was gassing up to travel to their northern Michigan property to do yard work. She scolded residents for traveling out of state on spring break even while putting herself and her children on planes to visit her father in Florida. She warned against unnecessary public gatherings and then was photographed – unmasked – sitting around a crowded table with colleagues at a Lansing bar.

Again, many if not most of her policy decisions can be defended at the time they were made. (I’m still not sure why certain aisles were shut down in department stores, but manned Lottery counters were allowed to operate.) But in hindsight, was it really a good idea to force schoolchildren and high school athletes to wear masks? Were the educational losses attributed to distance learning worth the now questionable community benefits?

Whitmer had company among like-minded governors. California’s Gavin Newsom chided selfish parents for wanting to send their children to class rather than staying home. What Newsom didn’t say was that his children all were attending class in-person at private schools.

Basically, Newsom and Whitmer believed that they had studied the information, gauged the risk, and decided they were capable of acting in the best interests of themselves and their families. They just didn’t think that the rest of us deserved the same opportunity.

Rich Perlberg retired ten years ago after a longtime career as a reporter, editor, and general manager for the Brighton Argus, the Livingston County Press, and beginning in the year 2000 the Livingston County Daily Press & Argus, the  county’s first and only daily newspaper. Rich first came to the county in 1974 and has lived here long enough that he can remember cashing checks at the pharmacy counter of Uber’s drug store in Brighton, but not so long to have a rural road named after him.

Editor’s Note: The thoughts and opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of GIGO LLC or its advertisers.


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