Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Mehdi Hasan on Covid Contrarians

Mehdi Hasan did a 26 minute show on Covid misinformation. It's mainly about American "Covid contrarians," but this kind of thing is happening in Canada as well. Good on him for doing this; it's exhausting just looking at the bullshit arguments being foisted on us over and over.

An abridged transcript is below with some bolded bits for your skimming pleasure. 

"Covid has not gone and our kids are still at risk of infection, of re-infection, of long-term harm, and yes of death. Today I want to address this thorny and very emotive issue of kids, schools, and Covid because we have seen a blatant and bad faith rewriting of history on this issue from a lot of people who should know better. What you're about to watch is one of the most important deep dives I've ever done on this show because the myths about children and Covid--that kids aren't really harmed by it, that school closures were a massive and avoidable mistake, that they caused learning loss and mental health issues--those myths, and they are myths, dangerous myths, have endured for so long, become so ingrained so pervasive that they're not just something Fox viewers believe. I'm sure many of you watching at home have sadly come to accept many of these myths as true so we need to reassert what the actual truth of the matter is."

Then he went back through the trajectory of misinformation starting back in March 2020 when many were insisting that, somehow, kids won't be affected by Covid.

"We actually knew it was false at the very beginning of the pandemic just days before Elon Musk was tweeting that kids are essentially immune. Peer-reviewed research of 2 000 infected children in China showed the opposite. In that survey, 125 kids, nearly 6%, developed very serious illness. One died. The evidence was there that kids were at risk, so why don't we take that risk more seriously? 

First, because Covid was undeniably so much more dangerous to adults and to the elderly in particular that many people just discounted the risk to kids. And, second, in Spring 2020, we did have lockdown. Schools did close and other significant public gatherings were seriously limited, and yes, as a result many children and adults were effectively protected from infection. And yet that became a rationale for many people to assume that opening schools would be fine. To paraphrase the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in another context, that's like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you're not getting wet. As the anti-school closure keyboard warriors typed on from their own virtual workplaces actual frontline workers and responders in the pandemic were sounding the alarm as schools were reopened and the Delta and Omicron waves swamped America. Children's hospital wards filled up with record numbers of patients, and more kids were dying. With schools open but vaccines unavailable for kids, Covid deaths among children began to grow at a far higher pace than in the first wave of the pandemic. . . .  

Hospitalization rates for children at the peak of the Omicron wave were four times higher than at the peak of Delta. Throughout all this many kids who were infected but lived contracted rare and dangerous inflammatory conditions. Many more developed Long Covid symptoms despite being otherwise healthy, and yes many died. The CDC estimates that Covid has killed between 1,700 and 2,300 kids in the U.S. . . . A university of Oxford study found that it was the leading underlying cause of death from infectious disease for kids and the number eight cause of death for kids overall. In fact the death rate for kids from Covid was higher than the death rates for flu and pneumonia combined."

He has a clip of former CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walinski explaining, "Children are not supposed to die." 

He continues (bizarrely in the past tense despite all this is continuing to happen):

"When you hear conservatives in particular saying, well the kids who died from Covid they all had co-morbidities; they were all unhealthy, A. that's not true, and B. we're supposed to be okay now with kids dying from Covid because they have asthma?? I guess we found those death panels that conservatives used to fear-monger about. But the thing is that the precautions we took to protect kids in closed schools wasn't just about the kids, it was about protecting everyone. Kids didn't get infected in a vacuum. Even when they had no Covid symptoms they could pass the coronavirus to other friends and family who were more vulnerable, and they did pass it on. Multiple studies over the past three years have shown again and again that kids can be vectors for Covid, They can get it and pass it on. Just this summer a study of nearly 200,000 families here in the US over three years estimated that 70% of cases where Covid spread through a household started with a child in that home. Seventy percent. That study concluded, "These transmissions decreased during summer and winter school breaks." Infected children infected adults. Is that so hard to believe? Not to any parent who ever got their kid's school flu or a common cold. 

So if you're someone who inexplicably is not moved by the preventable deaths of thousands of kids, well just think about how much worse it could have been for everyone in America, how many more kids and adults would have died, if we hadn't closed any schools at all. . . . 

They want you to forget that the American public agreed with school closures in the summer of 2020. In fact a majority of parents, 60%, said it was better to delay opening schools that fall if it meant less risk of infection. 70% of Americans said schools needed more resources before they could open safely. The Covid contrarians want that history forgotten, and sadly they're getting what they want. Today the new conventional wisdom across the political and media spectrum is that closing schools was a colossal and avoidable error. . . .

Congress spent $190 billion over three spending bills to help public schools during the pandemic with building improvements with things like improved ventilation and HEPA filters. One engineering expert estimated that we could put a HEPA filter in every classroom in America for a billion dollars, and we would have still had $189 billion left over, and yet, spoiler alert, there are not HEPA filters in every classroom in America. In fact only 28 of school districts said they had HEPA filters in use at the end of last year according to a CDC survey. Perhaps even worse, almost half of the $190 billion allocated for schools in the pandemic was never spent by the states and the school districts. If you want to talk about the mistakes surrounding school closures and Covid, if you want to be angry that schools did not open back up fast, enough maybe you should direct that anger at the politicians who had no plan or the bureaucrats and local officials who didn't spend the tens of billions of dollars that was at their disposal to keep classrooms covered for free. 

Instead the Covid contrarians get worked up about what they say are the disastrous educational consequences of closing schools they say that the lockdowns irreparably harmed children's education, and they often throw around this term learning loss. . . . Look, when people talk about learning loss, they're usually talking about test scores, which for reading and for math have gone down since the pandemic began. The critics argue that remote learning was a key driver of the overall decline. But let's imagine for a moment that the critics, the contrarians, were right that learning loss came straight from school closures. If they were right, we would expect to see the Los Angeles County Unified School District--it was closed until April 2021--fair much worse than major districts in Florida, which famously opened in the fall of 2020, but let's take a look. Scores in LA had been trending down for a decade but in 2022 its scores bucked the trend. They were higher than the trend line predicted. . . . We can actually look at many districts. That's what Dr Tyler Black, from the University of British Columbia, did. The Covid contrarians often point to learning loss in math, and there was an overall drop in the country about 2-3% depending on the age group, but look at in-person versus remote districts. In-person scores dropped less than remote scores, but only a little bit, actually within the margin of error. When you look at reading scores the difference between in-person and remote is again within the margin of error. But the remote schools actually fared better than the in-person ones. Their loss was not as bad.

While it's true that no parent wants their kids to fall behind in subjects like reading and math, 60% of parents said in July 2020 that they would prefer that schools stay remote and minimize the risk to their kids even if they missed out on in-person learning, even if they missed out on time in the classroom, so again let's not rewrite history. . . . 

Now we're seeing the mental health impact. Yes, to the surprise of no one, this part of the Covid contrarian narrative has dominated the news with complex studies being turned into simple attention grabbing headlines. To be clear, nobody is denying that a once in a century pandemic had an undeniable impact on the health and well-being, emotional, mental, physical, of kids across this country. But the evidence just isn't there to say that the single driver of an alleged mental health crisis was schools being closed and kids having to engage in remote learning. The folks who say this will often point to this CDC study that looks at kids age 12 to 17. It finds a 20% jump in suicide attempts from the summer of 2019 to the summer of 2020 and a 40% jump from the winter of 2019 to the winter of 2021, and that is hugely concerning. But the CDC caveats their study saying that parents may have become more aware of their kids mental health issues during the pandemic because they were all at home together, making them more likely to send those kids to the ER. 

When you take a closer look at the graphs in the study you'll notice that the amount of ER visits for suicide attempt went up during the first couple of months of 2020 for both girls and boys before the school shutdowns, but that study doesn't acknowledge the years-long trend. If you want to talk about 2020, you also need to note that rates were higher in 2019 than they were in 2018 higher in 2018 than they were in 2017, and so on. See these rates have been trending up sadly, tragically, well before the pandemic began, and yet it was only once schools closed that the Covid contrarian suddenly started to pay attention to our kids' declining mental health and expressed shock and horror. But here's what might surprise you: in July researchers at the University of Texas looked at 73 000 emergency room visits for suicide attempts for kids aged 10 to 18 between 2016 and 2021. They found what we just mentioned, that the rates trended upwards from 2016. Most of the time the rate would drop during the summer and increase again in the school year, but in 2020 it wasn't during the summer break when their rates hit their low point, it was in the spring during lockdown. And when schools began reopening those rates climbed back up. That completely contradicts the current conventional wisdom on kids mental health and school closures. . . . 

When researchers got specific and asked about depression, anxiety, and psychological stress, three key areas we use when actually assessing mental health, there was little to no difference between kids in school and kids in remote learning. On top of that, the study explicitly warns against using its results to make sweeping statements about remote learning and children: "Causality cannot be inferred from this study." There are plenty of reasons that the year 2020 would have been bad for the mental health of American children because the pandemic was staggeringly traumatic. The pandemic itself. Kids were waking up each day to pictures of mobile morgues. Children in places like New York went to sleep each night to the sound of sirens and ambulances on the street a constant reminder of the seemingly never-ending Covid death toll. And for many children that death toll became very personal in New York City: one out of every 200 children lost a caregiver to Covid as of May 2022. Over a quarter of a million children across the U.S. lost one or both parents to Covid-19. Thousands upon thousands of children in the U.S became orphans during the pandemic, a detailed that Covid contrarians have just glossed over.

I'm no psychiatrist but I'm pretty sure that losing a parent has a bigger impact on your emotional and mental health than having to learn algebra via Zoom. I haven't even touched on the amount of kids who lost friends, neighbors, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and other loved ones to the pandemic. So isn't it just bizarre to assume that in a period marked by an environment of chaos uncertainty instability and mass death that school closures were the main driver of this mental health crisis?

By the way, we're expected to believe that the GOP politicians, the conservative pundits, the people who constantly call kids snowflakes, who refuse to do anything about school shootings, who defund mental health care services across the country, now suddenly care about the state of children's mental health. That's their reason for opposing school closures. Forgive me, but I don't buy it. Look, when you hear people today especially in our politics and our media say school closures were preventable, were not necessary, not popular, that's false, a lie, a myth. When you hear people say that kids aren't really affected by Covid; they're kind of immune, and they don't get sick or hospitalized; they don't bring home Covid to grandma or grandma, that's false, that's a lie, that's a myth. You want to get angry about something? Don't get angry that schools had to close because of a once in a century pandemic that killed more than a million people and left hundreds of thousands of kids sick, hundreds of thousands of kids orphaned, thousands of kids dead. Get angry that we as a country failed our kids, exposed them unnecessarily to infection and even reinfection by a brand new and dangerous respiratory disease, and continue to expose them in schools that still aren't fit for purpose in an era of Covid

That is worth getting angry about. 

Our very own Tyler Black garnered a mention here! He has been explaining about mental health trends for ages, and about how much being in school negatively impacts kids. In 2021 he said, "If your answer to distress is simply 'go back to school' then you are neglecting how much stress and distress can be caused by school." Last July he said, "School days are associated with a 65% increase in suicide rates. . . . It's been true since 1983." I've followed his work for ages because it's a huge problem that being in school increases suicide rates, and, now we know that school is so stressful that a lockdown during a flippin' pandemic reduced suicides!! 

But that's a problem for another day. 

Please make sure your kids are in well-fitting masks (N95s, KN94s or better) for school this year. Remind them not to touch the outside of the mask! If possible, send a personal mini-HEPA with them for a bit more protection. And consider sending them with a CO2 monitor that can track the air quality in their classroom in real time to provide you with some data if you decide to take them out of class and/or if you want to fight to improve the air quality of your school. 

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