Outrage of the Month: State Rollbacks of Pandemic Restrictions: ‘Neanderthal Thinking’ Indeed

Health Letter, April 2021

By Michael Carome, M.D.

outrage

If you’re not outraged,
you’re not paying attention!

Read what Public Citizen has to say about the biggest blunders and outrageous offenses in the world of public health, published monthly in Health Letter.

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Image: TJ Brown/Shutterstock.com

With the number of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths having dropped significantly from their staggering peaks in January and COVID-19 vaccinations ramping up across the country, many state governors have recklessly concluded that the pandemic dangers have passed and prematurely lifted restrictions on indoor gatherings, mask-wearing mandates and other critical public health measures that have helped limit the spread of this potentially deadly infection.

For example, on March 2 — against the advice of public health experts — the governors of Texas and Mississippi announced that they were lifting their statewide mask-wearing mandates and COVID-related restrictions on businesses. At a news conference that day, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott stated, “It is now time to open Texas 100%… Every business that wants to be open should be open!” Both Abbott and Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves issued similar executive orders that allowed all businesses in their states — including bars, restaurants and gyms — to open at full capacity.

Other states that have completely or partially rescinded either mask-wearing mandates or COVID-related business restrictions include Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Iowa, Montana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, West Virginia and Wyoming.

Many state governors justified their easing of restrictions based on the declining rates of new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths in their states and the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines that have been granted Emergency Use Authorization by the Food and Drug Administration.

However, according to tracking data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), although significantly down from their wintertime peaks, the current numbers of daily new COVID-19 cases and deaths are still approximately the same as during their summertime peaks when there was widespread community transmission of the coronavirus across the country.

Moreover, the number of people fully vaccinated for COVID-19 currently is insufficient to establish the level of immunity throughout the population necessary to stop community spread of the coronavirus — so-called “herd immunity.” There are also concerns that the vaccines may provide diminished protection against some of the more transmissible coronavirus variants now circulating in the U.S.

As a result, the decisions by governors to lift mask-wearing mandates and COVID-related business restrictions undoubtedly is going to lead to additional preventable serious illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths.

Highlighting the dangers of the governors’ premature actions was a study published online on March 18, 2021, in Lancet Infectious Disease that used sophisticated mathematical models to predict the course of the pandemic in the U.K based on various scenarios regarding vaccination rates and effectiveness and continued implementation of non-pharmaceutical interventions (social distancing or lockdown measures, which would include the types of COVID-related business restrictions imposed by states).

The study researchers estimated that COVID-19 vaccinations alone would be insufficient to contain the outbreak in the U.K. and that removal of all non-pharmaceutical interventions once the vaccination program is complete would result in a predicted 21,400 COVID-19 deaths if the vaccines are 85% effective in preventing infections and 96,700 COVID-19 deaths if the vaccines are 60% effective in preventing infections. These additional deaths due to the relaxation of non-pharmaceutical prevention measures are projected to occur in a small island nation that so far has experienced over 126,000 COVID-19 deaths. In the U.S. we have eclipsed 550,000 dead.

Cautioning against states’ rollbacks of COVID-19 restrictions, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky stated the following at a March 1 White House briefing:

I am really worried about reports that more states are rolling back the exact public health measures we have recommended to protect people from COVID-19…

Please hear me clearly: At this level of cases, with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained. These variants are a very real threat to our people and our progress. Now is not the time to relax the critical safeguards that we know can stop the spread of COVID-19 in our communities, not when we are so close.

We have the ability to stop a potential fourth surge of cases in this country. Please stay strong in your conviction. Continue wearing your well-fitted mask and taking the other public health prevention actions that we know work.

But President Joe Biden said it best when he bluntly characterized the decisions by the Texas and Mississippi governors to lift their states’ COVID-19 restrictions as “Neanderthal thinking.”