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'Total lack of critical thinking': Experts question COVID vax, mask mandates amid 'surge'

CDC was catching flak nearly two years ago for how it used evidence to claim "masking prevents severe disease," new emails show. Five colleges that share same neighborhood - and health center - have wildly different vax policies.

Published: August 28, 2023 11:05pm

Updated: August 29, 2023 12:18pm

Governments and private entities are using a small rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations and new viral variants to juice interest in bivalent boosters that only 1 in 6 Americans have taken and to urge a return to routine masking, if not outright mandating new jabs and face coverings.

What they aren't providing is robust evidence for the effectiveness of the interventions against infection by a virus that has already provided natural immunity to an estimated 19 in 20 Americans as of November 2022, according to Harvard research published in this month's journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.

"If a tiny bump in the rate of new weekly Covid hospital admissions—that still is among the lowest rates over the last three years—relates to a surge, then what is an actual large rise called?" science journalist David Zweig wrote in an essay Thursday questioning explanations by public-health pundits for the increase.

"The use of this hyperbolic language by so many media outlets that over-dramatizes risk skirts very close to misinformation," said Zweig, known for his reporting on the Twitter Files and scrutiny of the evidence behind school mask mandates and the six-foot rule.

Even President Biden acknowledged current COVID vaccines, which include original and Omicron variant strains, are not performing as hoped. He said at a press gaggle Friday he's planning to ask Congress for additional funding for a new vaccine "that works" and will "tentatively" be recommended for everyone, regardless of prior infection, vaccination history or risk level.

The CDC warned last week that a new variant, BA.2.86, only diagnosed in nine people worldwide and two in the U.S. at the time, "may be more capable of causing infection" in the naturally immune and vaccinated. 

While the agency cautioned there was "no evidence that this variant is causing more severe illness," its "current assessment" is that the next update of the COVID vaccine "will be effective at reducing severe disease and hospitalization," but cited no evidence.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researchers also cited no evidence for masking's benefit in a paper posted online in May, but not yet printed by the Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities, on which messages and behaviors are best at spurring masking by racial and ethnic group.

Based on an online survey in the pandemic's first year, the study found Hispanics and whites were most persuaded by "seeing others wearing masks," black people through the "belief that wearing a mask would protect others" and Asians through "belief that people important to them believe they should wear a mask."

Newly public emails led by Biden's former COVID adviser show the CDC was getting heat behind the scenes in the pandemic's second year for how it represented mask evidence.

The agency is misleading the public on a website it co-hosts with the Infectious Diseases Society of America, University of Minnesota public health professor Michael Osterholm wrote in a Nov. 15, 2021 letter to IDSA and CDC officials including then-Director Rochelle Walensky. 

The website can claim only that "masking prevents severe disease" by ignoring the "serious errors" in its cited research, according to Osterholm, who publicly questioned the effectiveness of common face masks months earlier. 

The letter was signed by Osterholm's colleagues at his university's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy and at other universities. The National Institutes of Health provided it in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the Functional Government Initiative, The Epoch Times reported.

Bivalent-booster rates have barely budged since January, when the feds claimed children risked "COVID's worst outcomes" if they didn't get the newly authorized jabs. Cleveland Clinic research suggests more jabs correlate with more susceptibility to reinfection, Yale University epidemiologist Harvey Risch recently told Just the News.

More than 90 colleges are still mandating either primary-series vaccines or boosters, according to ongoing tracking of written policies by the advocacy group No College Mandates.

Colleges that have recently confirmed fall mandates include historically black Morris Brown College and Spelman College, women's colleges Wellesley and Bryn Mawr, and performing arts school Juilliard.

The five undergraduate components of Southern California's Claremont Colleges, whose campuses adjoin each other and share a health center, do not share one COVID vaccine policy, however, No College Mandates observed.

Claremont McKenna dropped its mandate this spring, while Harvey Mudd and Scripps dropped their mandates for employees but not students this month. Pomona requires the primary series, and Pitzer requires "all recommended boosters." The health center didn't mention the diverging policies in a fall welcome message to the campuses.

"These colleges should respect medical choice among students as well as faculty. Why the bias against young people? Total lack of critical thinking," epidemiologist Allison Krug, coauthor of a Journal of Medical Ethics study on COVID booster mandates for students, wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Johns Hopkins medical professor Marty Makary, a National Academy of Medicine member and Krug's coauthor, also referred to the No College Mandates list in a Saturday post. He encouraged students at colleges that don't recognize natural immunity to show their leaders a Lancet systematic review and meta-analysis of prior-infection research.

Rising case numbers prompted New York City to launch a new campaign to spur masking, which is also the subject of resumed mandates in healthcare settings in the Big Apple, New England and elsewhere.

Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo pushed back last week, saying mask rules had been "proven ineffective" and urged people to refuse to comply. Former New York Times science columnist John Tierney published a research-heavy broadside against masking in the Manhattan Institute's City Journal on Sunday.

Some private institutions quickly backtracked on their mask mandates last week, suggesting responsiveness to public opinion.

Hollywood studio Lionsgate lifted an indefinite mask rule that applied to about half of its Santa Monica employees just four days after announcing it, belatedly claiming Los Angeles County ordered, then rescinded the mandate because of a since-controlled COVID outbreak, Deadline reported.

Kaiser Permanente's Santa Rosa, California, medical facilities took only two days to revise a mask rule that applied to "physicians, staff, members, patients and visitors," now limiting the mandate to physicians and staff, the Press Democrat reported. 

Masking has never had "good data in community settings in the past" and "is literally incoherent now," University of California San Francisco epidemiologist Vinay Prasad, who has questioned the research basis for masking, wrote on X regarding the New York City campaign.

"We will all get many respiratory viruses in our lives," Prasad said. "COVID is now like all the others. Living in fear is bad for mental health."

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