What started in March 2020 as “two weeks to flatten the curve” has turned into “14 months and counting,” depending on what part of the United States you are in.
In the beginning, relatively little was understood about the COVID-19 virus. But here we are in May 2021 with far better information about it, and still there is wide variability across the United States in restrictions. For example, there is wide variability across states regarding mask mandates.
While some states have completely lifted restrictions, others have left them up to the county or city level, or individual businesses. Some states still have capacity restrictions on businesses, others don’t. Some states are proposing to release restrictions once the vaccination rate has achieved a certain level.
Both the ongoing restrictions, as well as the variability across states, have been based on a one-sided view of the science. The other side of scientific perspective, which promotes a more balanced approach to the COVID-19 response and additional information about risk factors, has been suppressed and even vilified. This is despite tens of thousands of public health scientists promoting a different perspective, as evidenced by the Great Barrington Declaration signed by more than 13,000 public health scientists.
While government and health department leaders use words like “infallible” and “irrefutable” to describe their perspective on COVID-19, a wealth of scientific research promoted by the authors and signers of the Great Barrington Declaration tells a different story. Here, I outline a few of the major narratives of COVID-19, provide the scientific perspective on the other side, and show why ongoing restrictions should be reconsidered.
1. Asymptomatic Transmission
Mask mandates are controversial. While much has been made of the fact that while government leaders push “the power of the mask,” as Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine calls it, a substantial scientific literature shows that not only are masks not effective against viral transmission, they are also potentially harmful to one’s health (good summary here). But the critical point here is why masks are being used. That is the idea of asymptomatic spread of SARS-CoV-2—that is, healthy people who carry the virus but never show symptoms.
Indeed, in the early days the COVID-19 literature was unclear on this, because many papers described transmission of “asymptomatic cases” that eventually developed symptoms. The literature eventually adopted the term “presymptomatic” for these individuals.
In addition, countless stories have been published both in the scientific literature and corporate media describing instances of transmission from asymptomatic individuals. Epidemiologically, these are best characterized as case studies—scientific documentation and characterization of clinically significant events.
Yet case studies do not capture all the situations where asymptomatic spread does not occur. This is why population-based studies carry more weight, because they enumerate situations in which asymptomatic spread both did and did not occur.
An examination of scientific articles of population-based studies that distinguished “asymptomatic” from “presymptomatic” transmission shows the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 is low (usually 0-6 percent) from asymptomatic individuals, and lower from asymptomatic individuals than from presymptomatic individuals. While one study showed a transmission rate as high as 10 percent, many studies showed rates of 0.
To be fair, some of these studies showing zero transmission were quite large, but it also inappropriate to handpick one of these studies to say “asymptomatic transmission does not exist.” While transmission from asymptomatic individuals does occur, it also occurs for influenza, but masks aren’t mandated in flu season. In short, the scientific literature does not support the idea that the majority of SARS-CoV-2 transmission comes from healthy people.
2. COVID-19’s Severity
Again, much has been made in the media about instances of people who have terrible outcomes due to COVID-19, including very severe diseases requiring hospitalization, and even death. First, this is another reminder that stories in the media represent case studies, not population-based analyses, and as stated above, that provides one perspective but not the whole picture.
Here, it is instructive to look at analyses done at the population level. First, analyses of case-fatality rate and infection-fatality rate by both the Centers for Disease Control and world-renowned epidemiologists show the survival rate of COVID-19 is more than 99 percent in individuals below 70 years of age, and more than 95 percent in individuals greater than 70 years of age. High survival rates like these are not indicative of a severe, scary virus.
Looking at the hospitalization rates of states with differing responses to COVID-19 from states’ coronavirus dashboards, at the time of this writing, 5.2 percent of Ohio’s coronavirus cases had been hospitalized, 4.2 percent of Florida’s resident coronavirus cases had been hospitalized, and 5.6 percent of Washington state’s cases have been hospitalized. While these overall percentages do not account for peak times when hospital capacity may have been squeezed, it is still an indicator of overall severity.
Those analyses take the data at face value. However, that might give an inflated perspective on reality. Dr. Scott Jensen, a family physician who also served as state senator in Minnesota, has been interviewed multiple times describing the CDC’s policies regarding reporting deaths “with,” not “of,” COVID-19. Close examination of the Ohio coronavirus database reveals several oddities, further suggesting that hospitalization and death numbers reported as “due to COVID-19” are possibly inflated.
3. Effectiveness of Lockdowns
Lastly, there are those that believe this pandemic would have been much worse had it not been for the various government-instituted mandates, lockdowns, stay-at-home orders, business closures, etc. World-renowned epidemiologist Dr. John Ioannidis wrote an article in March 2020 warning against such efforts, foretelling how damaging they would be.
Now, a body of scientific articles shows that these lockdowns did little to control the coronavirus, research this article nicely summarizes. Among the highlights: countries with differing levels of restrictions had similar patterns of both rates of new disease as well as mortality, often rates of new disease were already declining before the implementation of these measures, and now there are unjustified economic consequences.
Consider this figure made by Delaware, Ohio, city Councilwoman Lisa Keller. The plot of hospitalizations comes straight from the Ohio coronavirus website, and she added the dates of various state mandates, not including the statewide mask mandate of July 23, 2020.
This is important because DeWine tied a 10 p.m. curfew to hospitalization rates. This figure shows no impact of these various mandates on hospitalization rate. This point was made further by another statehouse testimony by Kathryn Huwig.
Why Continue Restrictions?
Throughout this pandemic, various state leadership and corporate media have contrasted how different states responded to COVID-19, and all of this has been driven by a one-sided perspective on the science. Now that some states are reducing restrictions, some completely eliminating restrictions, and some indicate no end to the restrictions in sight, these restrictions’ shaky basis in “science” is even more obvious.
Some states, like Ohio and Pennsylvania, are considering reducing restrictions based on vaccine coverage, though DeWine recently stated he would release restrictions and instead incentivize vaccination using a lottery for millions of dollars and college tuition. However, herd immunity can be acquired either by immunization or by natural infection.
Many people are hesitant to get these vaccines because they are not yet U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved and have been shown to have severe adverse reactions. Why ignore the natural immunity demonstrated by antibody surveys? Further, why deem a vaccine as an absolute necessary given its true severity as noted above?
Other states continue to base their mandates on case numbers or hospitalizations, or some fluctuating combination of both. As noted above, the hospitalization rate is not associated with restrictions, or necessarily even linked to COVID-19 morbidity. At least one-third of individuals who test positive for SARS-CoV-2 are asymptomatic, and most of those will remain healthy.
It seems that ongoing restrictions do not reflect these scientific perspectives, which have been largely censored or disregarded by policy makers. By blocking scientific debate, the adverse outcomes of lockdowns will continue.