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Ladies Love Outlaws (Wearing Masks)

You don't want to hear this.

Neither do we.

But you've been reading the same news stories: Covid rates are up again. Very quietly, even timid politicians are taking steps. New York governor Kathy Hochul issued masks and tests to public schools, including in upstate towns and villages where parents drive around in pickups sporting "Impeach Biden" bumper stickers.

It's been clear for some time that the Biden administration's Covid policy was a more sophisticated version of the proposal by Donald Trump's science advisor to rely on "herd immunity," the phenomenon that occurs when so many people have either had a disease or received vaccines that a population becomes less vulnerable.

"We want them infected," wrote Trump advisor Paul Alexander in an email reported by Politico in 2020, a "Let Them Eat Cake" approach taken by a number of Trump appointees.

At the height of the pandemic, the Biden administration effectively expanded access to vaccines, but bowed to political pressures by backing off testing, quarantining, and masks. Both Bidens - Joe and Jill - as well as octogenarian Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi, have bravely gone maskless in public settings, presumably to calm the MAGA folks who confuse a public health issue with the Boston Tea Party. The messaging? The pandemic is over.

Only it's not. Jill Biden recently was diagnosed with Covid, if one needed further proof, and Covid hospitalizations were up 15.7 percent in the last week. Deaths went up 10.5 percent, both according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This is significantly less than previous surges, but it's still a significant uptick.


There is only spotty information on new infections, because the CDC stopped reporting them in May, shortly before it lifted the state of emergency. A number of public health experts were highly critical of the decision, charging that the administration was reverting to the public health neglect that left the U.S. unprepared when Covid hit.

A recent New York Times article on reinfection, which is what most Americans are looking at, detailed some of the things we know now: A reinfection is likely to be less severe, which means there is less of a chance of getting long Covid. That's the good news. Here's the bad news:

"A buzzy paper that was published in Nature Medicine last fall showed that people with two or more Covid infections were more than three times as likely to develop lung and heart issues, and over 1.5 times as likely to have a neurological disorder, including brain fog and strokes, than those who were only infected once."

In other words, you may not feel that sick, but a year later, maybe a couple of years later, you could have a stroke, or a heart condition, and it wouldn't have happened if you hadn't gotten Covid again.

The new monovalent vaccine, designed to fend off Covid's most recent iteration, XBB.1.5, is getting set for distribution by the end of next week in many parts of the U.S. But how many Americans will get it? Once the administration stopped talking about Covid, vaccine rates dropped precipitously. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 17 percent of Americans chose to take the bivalent booster that came out earlier this year.

As our friend the political columnist Walter Shapiro said, U.S. Covid policy is laissez-faire, and we know how well that works out in economics. It's like driving. One of the reasons insurance rates are astronomical for young drivers is not because they don't know the rules of the road, but because they don't have enough experience to react quickly when the other guy does something stupid. There are a lot of other guys out there who may not be vaccinated or whose vaccines aren't up to date. If they've already had Covid they may have some immunity but not as much, according to the research, as they would if they had also gotten vaccinated. Odds are, they're not wearing masks. So in true American fashion, it's every man for himself (or whatever binary or non-binary you identify as; Covid doesn't care.)

Vaccines reduce Covid's severity, but they don't mean you won't get it, as we all know by now. Even for those of us who understand the science, it's a no brainer to mask in indoor public settings but peer pressure can be intense. Sometimes one forgets, or is simply too rushed to bother. But masking remains the simplest way to protect yourself short of never leaving the house.

Dick Brass, a former journalist who went into tech, so you know he's got good survival instincts, wrote this recently:

Covid cases are up. Should we mask? Some cultures — like ours — hate masks and associate them with outlaws, klansmen and executioners. Other cultures — like Japan and South Korea — have no problem covering their face. In Japan, folks used folding fans routinely before modern face masks appeared there during the 1918 flu pandemic. And they never stopped masking. Result? Japan had just 1/5 our Covid deaths per capita. If we had done as well, a MILLION American lives would have been saved.

In 2022, a month after the Japanese government relaxed its mask mandate, people in Japan were still wearing masks.

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It all comes down to cultural beliefs, and the MAGA folks are having a field day using the cowboy myth for political gain, even if it kills their supporters. More than 50 percent of Americans supported mask mandates on public transportation, including airplanes, but no matter. The MAGA freedom fighters rioting on Jan. 6 for our God-given right to be ruled by a con man and to give each other Covid simply cowed our politicians. Who knows? We didn't have access to all the focus groups. Maybe the pols were right to take the threat seriously, that tossed away blue surgical mask a tattered flag of delusional independence.

So, in the land of laissez-faire, if it feels hard to be different, just think of yourself as an outlaw.