Staff Columnist

Choose your own experts

Debates over COVID-19 response leave normal people confused frustrated

Anthony Fauci speaks with the coronavirus task force at the White House on March 17. Washington Post photo by Jabin Bots
Anthony Fauci speaks with the coronavirus task force at the White House on March 17. Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford

Believe science! Trust the experts! Frustrated Americans yell at politicians, compatriots or no one in particular during the coronavirus pandemic.

Sometimes it seems like finding solutions to the public health crisis is as simple as opening the coronavirus chapter of an eighth-grade science textbook and reading the facts in black and white.

But what we know about COVID-19 is less like a textbook and more like a choose-your-own-adventure novel — young adult fiction where the reader flips to selected pages to make choices throughout the story. Except in this case, you get to choose your own experts and scientific models.

Since the experts don’t agree, people have taken to picking sides. We have fans of Anthony Fauci, boosters for the World Health Organization and die-hards for the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

Take face coverings as one illustrative example. Among many complicated issues surrounding infectious disease, that seems like a relatively simple one. Which face coverings are most effective at decreasing the spread of infection? Even here, the experts aren’t in agreement.

Until recently, the official federal government advice was that masks are not beneficial for the general public. As recently as February, the surgeon general tweeted, “STOP BUYING MASKS!”

Weeks later, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published guidance recommending that Americans wear homemade cloth masks. The surgeon general even recorded a how-to video. The facts didn’t change, but expert advice apparently did.

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Still, others say face masks are overrated, and potentially even risky. There is a movement of medical professionals, led in part by Iowa doctors, calling for people to wear face shields instead of masks.

“I’m not excited about face masks,” said Dr. Michael Edmond, associate epidemiologist at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

In a recent interview, Edmond told me there is some literature to show cloth masks are helpful — not necessarily for protecting the wearer, but for protecting people around them — but shields have some significant advantages.

Shields provide more coverage and are shown to protect both the wearer and others from droplets and particles. Shield users might be less likely to touch their faces while readjusting the device, which is a common problem with masks.

Importantly, adequate shields can be constructed by individuals and local companies with readily available materials and without very precise specs required for medical masks. Shields are easy to clean and indefinitely reusable.

It’s a persuasive case for shields. I spent last weekend fashioning masks out of bandannas and rubber bands, and now I guess I’m spending this weekend crafting a shield out of a pop bottle and a plastic headband.

There is some buzz about face shields in the news and on social media recently, but face masks are still the hot thing. In the age of homemade how-to guides, Google Trends shows masks outpace shields in search volume at least a dozen times over.

Without access to the official channels of government communication, the pro-shields crowd has taken to social media and news interviews to encourage people to adopt them.

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One infectious disease expert who is closely following the situation in Iowa posted a photo on Twitter of a woman wearing a plastic carryout container on her face. He wrote, “This person is smarter than the entire CDC.”

That’s probably an exaggeration, but it’s a sign of the tension and frustration that exists between our trusted academic experts and our trusted government institutions. If they don’t trust each other, who the hell are lay people supposed to trust?

If this pandemic lasts several more months as some predict, we will need to move beyond blanket social distancing recommendations. The current regime is not sustainable, and face shields might be one tool that helps us go back out in the world.

Or maybe not. I’m not an expert, and the experts have differing opinions.

It’s kind of like a choose-your-own-adventure book, but that comparison only goes so far. In those books, you could keep your thumb on the previous page, and if R.L. Stine’s mutant purple goop from your aunt’s basement overcame and killed you, you could flip back to safety and make a different choice.

But in the coronavirus pandemic, you can’t turn back to a previous page. If you die of COVID-19, you stay dead, miracles notwithstanding.

Modern science has incredible power. But faced with a novel virus like this one, you should be skeptical of anyone who tells you the solutions are as easy or obvious as simply trusting the experts.

“Nobody is really able to make a super compelling argument about one approach over another because we don’t have the data to answer the questions. When data is not available you start to rely on expert opinion. And when you have an expert opinion, everyone has a disagreement,” Edmond said.

adam.sullivan@thegazette.com; (319) 339-3156

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