One on One: Did we learn anything?

Published 4:20 pm Wednesday, March 29, 2023

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D.G. Martin

Was it all in vain?

Were the things we did over the last three years attempting to stem the COVID epidemic worthwhile?

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Or was it a useless, unnecessary effort?

Novak Djokovic, probably the best tennis player in the world, was denied entry into our country to play in this month’s Miami Open because he continued to refuse to be vaccinated against COVID.

His situation raised again the question of whether it was wise to require individuals to accept vaccination as a requirement for work or school.

And it raises the question of when and if people must wear masks in order to attend school or universities or to work or for other gatherings.

Did we overdo the restrictions that we imposed to restrict the spread of COVID?

The debate continues.

New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, writing in the Feb. 21 issue of The Wall Street Journal, defends critics of the mask requirements:

“But when it comes to the population level benefits of masking, the verdict is in:

“Mask mandates were a bust.

“Those skeptics who were furiously mocked as cranks and occasionally censored as ‘misinformers’ for opposing mandates were right. The mainstream experts and pundits who supported mandates were wrong. In a better world, it would behoove the latter group to acknowledge their error, along with its considerable physical, psychological, pedagogical and pollical costs.

“But whatever the reason, mask mandates were a fool’s errand from the start. they may have created a false sense of safety – and thus permission to resume semi-normal life.”

Are you persuaded?

Not so fast.

First consider a column Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2009 to 2017, wrote in the March 17 issue of The Wall Street Journal. Frieden defends masks, vaccinations and other efforts to contain the epidemic.

After describing the devastation caused by the pandemic, he concedes, “And yet, deadly as it was, the pandemic could have been deadlier. Three interventions saved lives: vaccination, measures to reduce infections (especially closures of indoor activities and mask-wearing) and medical care (including hospital care and antiviral medications).”

Vaccinations, he says, are especially effective.

“Although the protection that vaccination offers against infection wanes after a few months and protection against severe disease decreases somewhat after four to six months, vaccines have been strikingly effective at reducing the risk of death, especially the mRNA vaccines produced by Pfizer and Moderna. In the U.S. in the last quarter of 2022, people who had been vaccinated and boosted were about 10 times less likely than unvaccinated people to be killed by Covid and two to three times less likely than people who were vaccinated but not boosted.”

Mask-wearing mandates are less than perfect, Frieden concedes, especially in schools. “In the U.S. and many other countries, however, schools were closed when they could have remained open, with devastating educational, social and economic harms. Mandates to close and open businesses were not tightly tied to real-time data, and the decision-making process of balancing costs and benefits was not transparent, creating avoidable antagonism and distrust. The simple truth that controlling any pandemic is essential for economic progress was often lost, along with many lives that did not have to be.”

We may have different ideas about the most effective way to fight pandemics, but one thing is certain. There will be another outbreak.

Therefore, even recognizing the difficulties caused by fixed and hard opinions, we must continue planning and preparing and, working to reach agreement, when possible, about how to respond to the next pandemic.

D.G. Martin, a retired lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s North Carolina Bookwatch.