By Guy Page
Gov. Phil Scott and Health Commissioner Mark Levine say data and science support the need to ban multi-household gatherings. But epidemiologists like Julia Marcus of Harvard University and other public health leaders say the data does no such thing, according to the November 23 New York Times.
Instead, the social-gathering skeptics recommend, Covid-19 policy should focus restrictions on nursing homes, prisons, the workplace, and public places and events.
Scott received both praise and criticism last month for banning indoor and outdoor multi-household gatherings. Criticism was scathing when his administration asked schools to, if necessary, question schoolchildren about where they spent Thanksgiving. The school policies will remain in force throughout 2020, Education Secretary Dan French confirmed at Friday’s press conference.
Both Scott and Levine insist a ban on social gatherings is regrettably necessary to reduce Covid-19 transmission and outbreak. Scott has chastised unwillingness to comply as unpatriotic.
But many epidemiologists cited by the New York Times say the scientific data simply doesn’t lead to the conclusion that (as both Scott and Levine have said) most outbreak-related cases this fall have stemmed from social gatherings, and that reducing them will reduce transmission.
“Somebody says something, and somebody else says it, and then it just becomes truth,” said Marcus, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Harvard University. “I worry about this narrative that doesn’t yet seem to be data-based.”
For example – in Colorado, only 81 cases are attributed to social gatherings, compared to about 10,000 from prisons, colleges, nursing homes, bars, and casinos.
The Times also quoted a leading expert from Johns Hopkins: “It’s important to give good public health advice about what’s coming in the holidays, no doubt about it,” said Dr. Tom Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “But it is not good to suggest that they [social gatherings] are now the preponderance of the source of spread.”
Baffled state officials are blaming systemic failure on individuals, according to experts quoted by the Times:
“‘It seems like they’re passing off the responsibility for controlling the outbreak to individuals and individual choices,’ said Ellie Murray, an epidemiologist at Boston University. ‘A pandemic is more a failure of the system than the failure of individual choices.’”
Vermont’s policy banning masked, socially distanced walking outdoors (since softened) while also allowing public dining without masks was termed unscientific and “bizarre” by Ashleigh Tuite, an infectious disease expert with the University of Toronto.
According to today’s Burlington Free Press, at a Nov. 24 press conference Scott and Levine said the Times overlooked the fact that some Vermont outbreaks have been linked to social events – notably the Washington County hockey-related outbreak.
Levine added that unlike other states, Vermont does not lack the wealth of contact data necessary to draw the straight line between social gatherings and outbreaks. But due to the state’s aggressive contact tracing, that’s not the problem here, he said.
Physicians refer to their profession as the “practice” of medicine because they never stop learning how to diagnose and treat illness. Both Scott and Levine have demonstrated to the Vermont media a willingness to let evolution in public health knowledge influence Vermont public policy. A Covid-19 press availability is scheduled for 11 pm tomorrow.
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