Editorial: Blinded by ‘science’? In a fast-changing pandemic world, public needs details on the whys behind policies

“We’re going to demand in New Mexico that science guide every decision we make,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in her news conference Wednesday announcing that some restrictions on business reopenings would be loosened slightly – along with a new mandate that everyone wear masks in public places unless exercising, eating or drinking.

Indeed, invoking “science and data” has become the mantra used by every politician and elected official in the country to do what they want to do in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

There is, of course, some unassailable science underlying the many public health directives now playing out across the United States. It is a novel virus that originated in China and quickly became a global pandemic. It is highly transmissible, primarily via airborne droplets, but also can be picked up on surfaces. It is particularly lethal for people over 65, especially in long-term care facilities, and for those with serious underlying medical conditions.

But in too many instances, “science and data” is a term used by politicians to squelch debate and discussion over policies and their impact. It is “science,” we are told. There is no dissent. Do as you are told.

But people aren’t stupid. They remember that what “science” dictated just a month ago, now – suddenly – may no longer be the case. It might actually be the exact opposite.

Take masks. On March 8, Dr. Tony Fauci was asked about masks on a “60 Minutes” interview. “There’s no reason to be walking around with a mask,” he said, adding that it could actually be harmful because people tend to keep fiddling with it to adjust it, touching their face – which “science” has told us not to do.

But on Wednesday, Lujan Grisham and Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase said “science and data” show that widespread use of masks in New Mexico can save “thousands of lives.” OK – if that’s true, why wasn’t there an earlier mandate to wear them the past couple of months? Why does the mandate only come now as the number of cases and rate of spread is headed in the right direction?

And testing.

At one point only people with symptoms were being tested, mainly because of a limited number of tests. Now, we are told that just about everybody should be tested. Some people repeatedly. Is there a good scientific reason that every single New Mexican should seek out a test? Is the plan to try to find anyone positive and then do contact tracing and isolation? We’ve been told that free testing is now available to anyone but haven’t really been told if, and why, and how often we should all do it – if, in fact, that’s the case.

At a more granular level, what science dictated that it was OK for more than 100 people to be in a big-box store but no customers could be allowed in a local family-owned liquor store? What science dictates who is an essential worker? In New Mexico, “essential” includes selling lottery tickets at convenience stores.

What science says the same restrictions on church services, which can now have 25% of capacity except in northwest New Mexico, should apply in Sierra County, which has recorded one case of COVID-19, as in a county with many more cases? What science keeps southeast New Mexico and places like Lincoln County with a total of two cases on the same level of lockdown as Albuquerque?

Science and data from the “spread rate,” which Scrase describes as an important indicator of how quickly the state can reopen, show three regions of New Mexico are at or below the target 1.15. Yet there is no move to allow the areas with the lowest spread rates to open more quickly.

Geography, apparently, isn’t considered “science.”

The “science and data” trump card is being played out across the country. President Trump uses it. The governor of Michigan who insanely banned people from being on a lake in a boat or buying paint used it. The governor of Georgia, perhaps recklessly reopening businesses, uses it. Heck, in Colorado the governor uses science and data to say people can get haircuts.

None of this is to say science and data aren’t useful in formulating public policy. They are. But that buzzword phrase is too often used to squelch questions and disagreements with their policies.

And the one thing “science and data” used to justify lockdown policies won’t do is tell you what kind of ramifications, or economic devastation, come about as a result. For example, the “science and data”-driven virtual shutdown of non-emergency medical procedures has led to its own budding public health crisis as people either can’t get the care they need, surgical and otherwise, or are afraid to get it. People with heart attacks aren’t going to hospitals. Early detection of cancers aren’t happening. Kids aren’t getting vaccinated. Hospitals have taken a huge financial hit that many won’t recover from – despite federal and state help. (It should be noted that this area is slowly reopening.)

So yes, science and data are important. But they can’t by themselves dictate wise public policy. That requires looking at subsets – like geography – and understanding what you hope to achieve and balancing that with the negative impact certain to follow.

At the end of the day, the fallout of policies dictated by “science and data” is found in another separate set of data – one that policymakers can’t afford to ignore.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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