Bad Political Arguments: RedState on Coronavirus

I feel like I could probably write a thousand “Bad Political Arguments” pieces on the Coronavirus, so I’m trying to restrain myself, but I saw a piece on RedState with the subtle title of “The Case for Masks, School Closings, & Social Isolation Just Collapsed!” and I felt like I had to take the bait.

Side note, the ampersand looks awesome in their title font, so kudos to whoever picked it.

Even if you have not heard of RedState, it will probably not surprise you to find out that they’re a conservative blog, and have taken a very stereotypical set of positions in response to the Coronavirus. To whit, some previous articles of theirs include:

A Tyranny of Testing: Why We Need to End Wholesale COVID Testing…Now

The Hardest Thing About This Lockdown May Be Admitting to Ourselves That It Accomplished Absolutely Nothing” (this was in May)

Sorry, Wearing Masks Is Anything but Harmless. Here are 5 Reasons Why

And, of course:

Trump Was Right All Along! Blocking COVID Cure HCQ Killed 10s of 1000s Say Latest Docs Calling out Fauci’s Deadly Anti-Science Agenda

Now, presumably about 80% you think that pretty much tells you all you need to know (40% in one direction and 40% in another). And I think it probably suggests that RedState wasn’t exactly perusing medical journals with an open mind and decided to write this piece based purely on a review of the evidence. (I’m reminded strongly of The Onion’s “Virginia Shooting Somehow Proves What Every Single American Has Been Saying All Along”.) But I do still think it’s worth discussing the claims they make in detail, to see if they have any worthwhile points and what the core of their argument is.

The main thrust of the piece is an article from the Annals of Internal Medicine, “Contact Settings and Risk for Transmission in 3410 Close Contacts of Patients With COVID-19 in Guangzhou, China”. As the title implies, they examined 3,410 people who were in close contact with 391 known COVID-19 patients to see how many of them got infected. From the study:

Close contacts are individuals who have had contact, without effective protection regardless of duration of exposure [emphasis mine], with 1 or more persons with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 any time starting 2 days before onset of symptoms in persons with a suspected or confirmed case, or 2 days before sampling for laboratory testing of asymptomatic infected persons[.]

They further note this includes contact tracing on public transportation, i.e., people who, based on phone tracing, were apparently in the same places on subways or buses or whatever.

Anyway, back to RedState, and their key point:

Of the 305 people who had close contact with someone who had the virus but never showed symptoms…

wait for it…

only 1 person caught it.

Given that any test is going to generate a significant number of false positives, there’s a good chance that one person didn’t even really have it either.

And, remember, we’re talking about people who were in close contact with each other. Almost a third of the subjects in the study were in the same household as the infected party.

But it gets better. Even people with symptoms turn out to be not very contagious.

Mild symptoms: Only 19 of 576 or 3.3% who had close contact wound up infected.

Moderate symptoms: Only 82 of 1469 or 5.6% who had close contact wound up infected.

Severe symptoms: Only 5 of 155 or 3.2% who had close contact wound up infected.

Critical symptoms: only 11 of 105 or 10.5% who had close contact wound up infected.

All that stuff we were told about how super-contagious COVID-19 is was just as much BS as the garbage about its unprecedented deadliness. In fact, if Anthony Fauci and CDC director Robert Redfield wanted us to know the facts rather than to scare us out of our wits and the press weren’t so corrupt and incompetent, we all would have known the former way back in March just like the latter.

Separately, at the beginning of the article, they already said this:

The Annals of Internal Medicine just published a comprehensive new study on how contagious the COVID-19 virus is. And I’m sorry to report that the case for a number of popular new practices that seem to have filled some spiritual need a lot of Americans have for self-abasement just completely collapsed.

The list of practices no longer having any conceivable rationale includes:

- Closing down schools.

- Closing down gyms, barber shops, or any other businesses.

- Limiting the number of patrons allowed in restaurants or other businesses at one time.

- Mass testing for the COVID-19 virus.

- Putting healthy people in quarantine.

- Keeping a distance of 3, 6, or some other arbitrary number of feet away from healthy individuals.

- Healthy individuals with no criminal intent wearing masks when it’s not Halloween.

So, according to RedState, we should basically stop doing literally anything in response to the COVID-19, because it’s not really contagious. What a relief!

Now, I think — especially if further information proves it — there might be something interesting in here about how much or how little truly-asymptomatic cases can spread the virus, although there’s other information about there that doesn’t agree entirely with this study that it’s borderline-zero — see the World Health Organization’s summary of the data so far, for example (under the heading “SARS-CoV-2 infected persons without symptoms can also infect others”).

But also, RedState appears to be taking a victory lap over the fact that even people with symptoms only transmit it to 3–10% of the people they come into contact with. And to be honest I think they’ve sort of lost me here. Lots of people come into “close contact” as defined in the study. They mention this somehow makes school closings ridiculous, but if one kid comes in with light sniffles and infects 3% of a school, that’s not exactly nothing. (Also, how many times are they going to come into “close contact” with their fellow students, or teachers?)

Frankly the entire premise of this article is absurd on its face, because again we can just look at the rate of new cases in the US:

Where does RedState think all of these cases are coming from, now that they’ve found this irrefutable medical evidence that the Coronavirus isn’t all that contagious in the first place?

This doesn’t mean the medical study is itself invalid — it’s totally possible that people with no symptoms only infect someone 0.3% of the time, although, how many people does the average person come into contact with? As for the people with symptoms who infect anywhere from 3–10% of the people they come into contact with (depending on the severity of their symptoms), well, that’s plenty. I’m sure in the absence of lockdown and other protective measures, we would all come into contact with 10–30 people pretty regularly. (And note, the above “Daily New Cases” graph is with a lot of people taking an effort to reduce transmission.)

Also, so far there are 175,000 deaths in the US, making it, per former CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden, currently the third leading cause of death in the United States. (The first two are “heart disease” and “cancer”, but COVID-19 is beating out the prior third-place winner, “all accidents”.) And yet RedState is basically insisting that we should open our eyes and realize how totally fine everything is.

To briefly revisit all of the stuff they thought didn’t have “any conceivable rationale”:

- Closing down schools.

Not sure how that’s supposed to be absurd. Schools were already a known hotspot for flu infections long before we got here. Students don’t just come into “close contact” with each other, they spend hours together. In fact, it’s probably more similar to the “household” category that the study tracks, which unsurprisingly accounts for a lot of the secondary infections (and apparently has a secondary infection rate of more like 10%).

- Closing down gyms, barber shops, or any other businesses.

Gyms involve people breathing heavily for extended periods of time, which is probably not great for avoiding respiratory virus transmission. Barbershops involve extended periods of time with somebody right next to you. (I’m sure there are other types of businesses that are inherently less risky.)

- Limiting the number of patrons allowed in restaurants or other businesses at one time.

Other than the fact that they clearly and inexplicably think the Coronavirus is no big deal, I don’t see how this made the list. If each “close contact” has some percent chance of infecting you, obviously more contacts equals more infections.

- Mass testing for the COVID-19 virus.

I think the rationale here is that if people don’t have symptoms we don’t need to worry, although it might be nice to know if somebody has been infected with the Coronavirus and therefore might start showing symptoms, rather than having them go to the gym with no mask, not socially distance, and abruptly realize they might be sick when they sneeze in somebody else’s face.

- Putting healthy people in quarantine.

Unless that keeps them away from other, sick people, who could infect them, I guess. Then maybe it might be a good idea.

- Keeping a distance of 3, 6, or some other arbitrary number of feet away from healthy individuals.

- Healthy individuals with no criminal intent wearing masks when it’s not Halloween.

Again, this sort of assumes that you can know in advance who is healthy, never be wrong, never have it turn out that somebody’s just coming down with it, never have somebody just ignore the fact that they have “mild symptoms” and therefore a 1-in-30ish chance to infect you, etc.

RedState obviously has an agenda. They wear it on their sleeve. In a way it’s more honest than some agenda-driven writers. But I felt the need to respond to this piece because so many articles do this — take one single piece of evidence and try to spin some huge narrative out of it (in this case, “every single thing you’re doing to fight the pandemic is dumb and worthless”), making all sorts of huge logical jumps and flying in the face of an overwhelming amount of data to the contrary, here in the form of the massive spread of infection and huge number of deaths caused by this disease.

(Also I felt the need to respond because it seems like this article is being read by a lot of people, based on its position on Memeorandum as I write this.)

By the way, just to really hammer home how ridiculous this article is, the same author, Michael Thau, is the one who posted the “Trump Was Right All Along! Blocking COVID Cure HCQ Killed 10s of 1000s Say Latest Docs Calling out Fauci’s Deadly Anti-Science Agenda” piece.

So, just to be clear, wearing masks, social distancing, shutting down businesses and schools, and really taking any precaution whatsoever doesn’t have “any conceivable rationale”, because the Coronavirus is basically a non-issue, but blocking hydroxychloroquine (which the FDA thus far says “showed no benefit for decreasing the likelihood of death or speeding recovery”) effectively stopped us from saving “almost 90,000 American lives to date”.

It’s truly amazing that the seriousness of the pandemic can vary so wildly in the, uh, literally two days between when he posted those two articles.

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