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How America's Covid guidance is a threat to children

The CDC’s Covid guidance for children has been confused and confusing. That can’t be good for our kids.
Image: School bus picking up elementary student wearing surgical mask.
What will a post-pandemic life look like for children? Getty Images; MSNBC

As a nation, we put tremendous stock in the expert classes during the pandemic. And because the rules and recommendations have changed so drastically over the past year, the contradictions in the sometimes redundant, occasionally overlapping, and recently obsolete Covid-19 mitigation guidance are going to take time to reconcile.

This time, the victims will be kids.

MSNBC host Rachel Maddow put it best when she said, “I feel like I’m going to have to rewire myself so that when I see someone who is out in the world without wearing a mask, I don’t instantly think, 'you are a threat. Or you are selfish, or you are a Covid denier, and you definitely haven’t been vaccinated.'” She probably spoke for millions.

That dynamic is about to produce a terrible injustice because the public health bureaucracy is not done meting out psychological harm in the name of overcaution. And this time, the victims will be kids.

Until the last week of May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance for unvaccinated children was uncompromisingly rigid. In schools and summer camps, children and staff were advised to continue wearing masks in perpetuity save for eating, drinking, sleeping or swimming, and they were told to maintain social distancing requirements forbid mixing between “cohorts.”

On May 28, the CDC pared those guidelines back, allowing children the option of unmasking only outdoors. But as The Washington Post noted, a Talmudic parsing of the new guidelines left readers with the impression that not much had changed. “But because it may not be possible for camp organizers to know who is vaccinated and who is not, the CDC notes that camps may simply choose to apply its previous guidance: Masks for all,” the dispatch read.

Departments of education across the country are committing to just that sort of eisegesis in order to reach their preferred conclusion: Kids must mask up for the foreseeable future.

At the height of the pandemic, Americans were asked to forgo most social and economic activity for the sake of the nation’s most vulnerable: The elderly, infirm and immunocompromised who were most likely to succumb to this disease. And most Americans did just that.

Kids are to be regarded not as young people who thrive in caring and affectionate environments but as little vectors of viral transmission.

While some mitigation efforts were imposed on the public from the top down, the interventions that proved most effective were undertaken by individuals and private interests. There wasn’t a ubiquitous police presence enforcing social distancing and mask wearing in spaces where the public was still allowed. These became self-reinforcing social norms.

We heard a lot from the Americans who flamboyantly rejected these social responsibilities, as you should expect. They were a novelty; exceptions that proved the rule. Those who chose to flaunt their recalcitrant opposition to masking guidance or abstaining from packed public gatherings made the news because they made curious spectacles of themselves.

But the collective good this establishment has done must be weighed against the bad. I don’t only mean innocent mistakes or well-intended deference to excessive caution; I mean displays of knowing disregard for the evidence of how this virus behaves in an effort to manipulate the public. Those are abuses of the public trust with profoundly detrimental psychological consequences for those who hang on this bureaucracy’s every word. And though the pandemic is on the eve of its conclusion, the abuses are ongoing. And those abuses are about to target America’s children.

It was an abuse of the public trust when the Trump administration’s Surgeon General Jerome Adams informed the public that we should, in all caps, “STOP BUYING MASKS,” just as it was an abuse when Dr. Anthony Fauci defended that deception. As he later explained, “We were concerned that it was at a time when personal protective equipment, including the N95 masks and the surgical masks, were in very short supply. And we wanted to make sure that [masks got to] the people, namely, the health care workers who were brave enough to put themselves in a harm [sic] way.” A noble lie, perhaps. But a lie, nonetheless.

It was abusive when Fauci explained that he knowingly misled reporters regarding the threshold at which point we would achieve herd immunity.

It was abusive when Fauci explained that he knowingly misled reporters regarding the threshold at which point we would achieve herd immunity. “When polls said only about half of all Americans would take a vaccine, I was saying herd immunity would take 70 to 75 percent,” Fauci told New York Times reporters. “Then, when newer surveys said 60 percent or more would take it, I thought, ‘I can nudge this up a bit,’ so I went to 80, 85.”

The truth, he explained, is that no one really knew what that threshold was in precise terms. But to be honest about that would be to sacrifice a tool that might lead the public in the direction of the greater good, so honesty had to be sacrificed.

It was foolhardy to let an overabundance of caution lead regulatory officials to briefly halt the administration of Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine when precisely six of 6.8 million recipients were discovered to have developed severe blood clots after immunization. That risk — literally less than a one-in-a-million chance — put tremendous downward pressure on vaccination rates and cratered demand for that particular inoculation, which has never fully recovered even after the vaccine was given the all-clear.

The CDC has been an especially reckless steward of its own credibility. It was a tremendous mistake to tease for weeks that it would finally produce guidelines for fully vaccinated people, only for them to endorse only two maskless activities: outdoor dining and outdoor gatherings with small groups.

These guidelines tacitly confirmed the sneaking suspicion that immunization does not protect you or others around you from this disease’s worst ravages. But it most certainly does. Even at the time that this guidance was produced, “breakthrough” cases of Covid-19 were observed in only 0.008 percent of the vaccinated population. But when the CDC finally reversed course and endorsed unmasking for all just two weeks later, it felt to many like a betrayal.

The facts as we understand them should not warrant this kind of excessive wariness, especially when it comes to children. Covid-19 infection in children under 12 years old is uncommon, and hospitalizations are even scarcer — between 0.1 and 1.9 percent of pediatric infections, which is likely to be a significant overestimate due to misclassifications. The rate at which children develop serious infections that can lead to complications or even deaths is vanishingly rare; as several physicians recently wrote for the Washington Post, “lower than the estimated deaths among children in recent influenza seasons.” In other words, Covid-19 presents a level of risk to young children that society regularly tolerated in the past and which we must once again learn to accept.

According to what we know, children are unlikely to represent a threat to each other, and they’re not a threat to vaccinated adults without underlying conditions (who should attend to their own individual health needs without imposing them on children). It is unconscionable to treat them as though they are.

This level of caution isn’t just imprudent; it is fraught with implications. For those who are still trying to “rewire” themselves and regard the public health bureaucracy as nigh infallible, we are creating the psychological predicate to treat children as a menace. Kids are to be regarded not as young people who thrive in caring and affectionate environments but as little vectors of viral transmission that must be cordoned off.

This would be cruel, and not just because children under 12 are unlikely to be vaccinated in large numbers until well into 2022. Guidelines that mandate the involuntary masking of children is based on an assessment of risk that is not justified by any rational calculation. It is paranoia, and public health officials are cultivating it.

We are no longer at the height of the pandemic. We are at its end. The public health bureaucracy may once again turn on a dime and tell the public to disregard its previous advice regarding children and masks. It wouldn’t be the first time. But these bureaucrats flatter themselves and condescend to us when they pretend as though they can turn public behavior patterns on and off like a switch.

By effectively telling average adults without complicating conditions that children are dangerous to them — especially when that is statistically not at all true — we’re creating the conditions that will result in the negligent maltreatment of minors.