On the other side of the world, a masked-up Italy is locking down again in the face of a March 2021 wave of COVID-19 infections looking like the deadly wave of 2020 on steroids.
“In Italy’s red zones, which cover an estimated 16.5 million people in a population of 60 million, you can now only leave home for work, health reasons, essential shopping or emergencies, but all non-essential shops are closed,” the BBC reports.
“Bars and restaurants are also shut but people can exercise near their homes if they wear masks and hairdressers can remain open.”
For the week ending March 8, the World Health Organization (WHO) Coronavirus Dashboard reports 155,000 new cases of the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2 in Italy. That’s a nearly 12 percent increase over the week before and about 25 times the rate of the same week a year ago.
The number of infections in 2020 was no doubt underreported. Testing rates are much higher now, and the Italians are blessed in that their case-fatality-rate, the number of people dying from COVID-19, has fallen steadily over the past 12 months.
At the peak of the pandemic in Italy last year, the Worldometer tracker shows more than 40 percent of Italians who caught COVID-19 died. That rate is now down to 3.78 percent. But still 2,300 people died of the disease in the week ending March 8, according to the WHO dashboard, an 11 percent increase over the week before.
The state remains one of the safest in the country, but the rate of infection is now more than 11 times greater than when Alaska was shutdown about this time last year. There is no shutdown in the works at the moment, and the success to date of vaccines offers hope for the months ahead,
But those most suceptible to serious COVID-19 – the old, the obese, people already suffering from chronic illnesses – would be well advised to double down on personal protection: primarily in the form of social distancing or outright isolation.
In the global data now is a clear warning for those who worship at the Church of the Mask. It is fine to believe in Gods, but when they actually influence anything on earth it is so rare the event is called a “miracle” – “an extremely outstanding or unusual event, thing, or accomplishment” as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
University of Vermont researchers warned of worship at the Church of the Mask months ago, but in this country, their findings got lost in the fog of the ongoing skirmishes in the culture war.
In that war, the good guys wear masks and the bad guys go without. Whether or not this makes a difference in saving anyone’s life is secondary, which might explain why the Vermont study attracted almost no attention from a Trump-fixated mainstream media:
“Trump (now former President Donald Trump) doesn’t much like masks, thus masks must be bad.”
The study didn’t really surface until after the University of Vermont promoted it in January and even then it was largely restricted to the medical and science press and couched in a politically correct way.
A better headline would have said, “If You Think Masks Will Protect Us, You’re A Fool,” which is pretty much what the Vermont study said. It tied the number of infections not to who wore or did not wear a mask, but to who had the most contacts with other people.
“We find that the key factors associated with a higher probability of being COVID-19 positive were the number of contacts with adults and seniors, particularly contacts with people who are themselves COVID-19 positive,” the authors wrote. “The factors that predict contacts, in turn, are working environment, living environment and, disturbingly, regularly wearing a mask outside of work. This study reinforces the concerns about risks for persons who have high levels of public contact during the pandemic.”
The warning about “messaging” appears to have come from the University’s public relations office when it started trying to attract some attention to the study.
Feeding the media
“Wearing masks may create a false sense of security,” the study’s authors wrote. “It is plausible that mandating masks could be counterproductive if the increased risk associated with an increase in contacts is larger than the decrease in risk associated with the mask itself. That is, it is possible masks may provide a false sense of security that leads to people letting their guard down and trusting the mask more than is warranted. Further research into the effectiveness of marks and behavioral responses to mask mandates is urgently needed.”
The PR office shifted this to the more saleable need for the “right messaging.” Mask mandates, it said, “should come with a caveat. If not accompanied by proper public education, the practice could lead to more infections.”
Nowhere was there a direct mention of the overwhelming focus on masking as a cure-all then flooding U.S. airwaves. The state of California, the National Basketball Association, Sesame Street, Nurses Everywhere, and many others were out there with public service advertisements pushing one thing and one thing only:
Wear a mask.
The government of Norway took a different view, a view in more in line with the researchers in Vermont.
“A face mask can be recommended to help reduce the spread in situations where the risk of infection is high. A face mask cannot replace the standard measures for infection control such as social distancing,” Norway told its citizens.
Norway today has one of the lowest death rates for COVID-19 among Western countries. With Norwegians dying of COVID-19 at a rate of just less 12 per 100,000, the rate is almost three times lower than the global average of 34.6 per 100,000, according to Worldometer figures, and almost 14 times better than the U.S. rate of 166 per 100,000.
Norwegian deaths due to COVID-19 are less than a twentieth the rate of the two hardest-hit U.S. states – New Jersey and New York. Norway’s success in dealing with the disease is tied to policies that sharply restrict travel into the country to prevent introduction of the virus, and aggressive tracking and tracing of people who might have had contact with those discovered to have caught the disease.
The latter policy allows the country to track down and quarantine possible carriers of SARS-Co-V 2 before they can infect others. Norway is by no means anti-mask, but it understands the limitations and is honest with its citizens about them.
The Norwegian government has spelled out situations in which masks might help, how to properly use masks if they are to be used and why they might even be required in some places in the country in the belief that they could help. But it didn’t try to wholly mislead the citizenry.
“The documentation on the effect of face masks for the protection against a respiratory infection is ambiguous and points to different conclusions,” the Norwegians said. “The overall assessment is that public use of face masks/cloth face coverings can reduce the risk of transmission by approximately 40 percent. The effect will vary with the quality of the face masks/cloth face coverings and whether the masks are worn correctly. The risk of infection when we keep a distance of at least one meter to others is reduced by approximately 80 percent. Hence the risk of transmission could increase if we wear a face mask instead of keeping a distance to others of at least one meter.
“The use of face mask/cloth face covering cannot replace but be a supplement to the standard measures for infection control: Stay at home if you are ill, get tested if you show symptoms, keep a distance to others and maintain good hand-and cough hygiene.”
Candian researchers have pegged mask effectiveness even lower, suggesting about a 10 percent reduction in infections. A University of Oxford study out of England that sought to provide an interactive model for governments imposing various sorts of nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to halt the spread of the disease concluded that “mandating mask wearing in (some) public places” increased infections by 1 percent, but that was a confidence point drawn from various studies that found a range of effectiveness from making things 13 percent worse to 8 percent better.
“Mandating mask-wearing in various public spaces had no clear effect, on average, in the countries we studied,” the researchers concluded. “This does not rule out mask-wearing mandates having a larger effect in other contexts. In our data, mask-wearing was only mandated when other NPIs had already reduced public interactions. When most transmission occurs in private spaces, wearing masks in public is expected to be less effective.”
Then, foreshadowing in some ways what the Vermont latter found, the English scientists wrote that “while there is an emerging body of literature indicating that mask-wearing can be effective in reducing transmission, the bulk of evidence comes from healthcare settings. In non-healthcare settings, risk compensation may play a larger role, potentially reducing effectiveness.”
After a year of life with COVID-19, risk compensation likely plays a bigger role now than ever. People want to get back to “normal,” making some less likely to treat SARS-CoV-2 as a serious threat despite its increased prevalence in the community and a year of government officials and the media trying to scare the public into taking the pathogen seriously.
If you were nervous about the virus in March 2020, you should be more than 10 times as worried now. But most of us aren’t.
The good news is that vaccinations are becoming increasingly available and have, so far, proven very effective. And the seasons are shifting toward those days of warmth, abundant sunshine and fresh air that appeared to drive SARS-CoV-2 infections down in Alaska in April and May of last year.
Then, too, there is the state’s inexplicably low case fatality rate (CFR) of about 0.5 percent, according to Worldometer data. New Jersey is at about 2.8 percent. California is 1.6 percent. Worldometer puts the global rate at 3 percent.
Oxford’s Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine lists CFRs from a worst of 4.2 percent in Bulgaria to 0.48 percent in Iceland. No other country is below 0.5 percent, and only six – one of which is Norway – are below 1 percent.
Alaska’s unusually low death rate is something of a mystery. Hawaii, which has the lowest per capita rate of infections in the U.S. and the lowest per capita number of deaths, has a CFR of about 1.5 percent.
Vermont, the only other state with fewer COVID-19 deaths per capita than Alaska, has a CFR of 1.3 percent.