Dear LNP: Stick to the facts & stop fueling Covid-19 hysteria

Americans are at each other’s throats; desperately needed debate about the merits of unprecedented “public health” measures is being drowned out by sanctimonious vitriol. 

In Lancaster County, our local newspaper has spent the last several months raking the unvaccinated and unmasked over the coals. In recent weeks, LNP’s outbursts against these accused disease-spreaders have become increasingly extreme and irrational.

Last month, the newspaper posed 16 questions to people “resisting” mask and vaccine mandates, in what appeared to be an attempt at public shaming. Some of the questions were oddly tangential (“Some of you say you’re afraid of needles. Will you also decline an IV drip or other intravenous medication if hospitalized with COVID-19?”) while others were thinly-veiled accusations (“Do you think politics should get in the way of ensuring children’s health? Your own health?”). 

LNP’s position, as we understand it, can be summarized as follows: Mask mandates and vaccine requirements are necessary to overcome the “brutally persistent pandemic,” and anyone who declines to mask-up or get the shot is harming themselves, Lancaster County, and the nation as a whole. “Economic ruin” lies ahead if people don’t do their part. 

This is certainly alarming. But let’s take a step back and calmly assess the situation.

Is the response proportionate to the threat?

It would be deeply misleading to imply that Covid-19 poses a serious danger to the general population. As LNP noted last December, “the majority of deaths reported in the county have been individuals over the age of 70 who have multiple comorbidities… a fact that has held steady since the beginning of the pandemic.”

This observation is clearly reflected in our county’s coronavirus figures. Since March 2020, 1,142 people in Lancaster County have died with Covid-19, of whom 26% were at least 90 years old; people aged 80 and above account for 61% of the county’s Covid-associated deaths. 

The average life expectancy in Lancaster County is 80. This means that 1 in 4 Covid-19 victims surpassed our community’s average life expectancy by a decade or more, while nearly ⅔ of those who succumbed to the virus passed away at an age consistent with the county’s health and living standards.

Fatal cases are highly concentrated among nursing homes, which account for 43% of all coronavirus deaths in Lancaster County. By May 23, 2020 — just two months into the pandemic — 72 Covid-19 deaths had already been reported at a single assisted living facility, Conestoga View. This figure is roughly equal to all Covid-linked fatalities in our county among residents below the age of 60, right up to the present day. 

Children are at very low risk from Covid-19, particularly when one considers the wide range of potentially lethal dangers that are tolerated by society. Tragically, at least two young lives have been cut short by automobile accidents in Lancaster County so far this year; but not a single child in our community has died from Covid-19. Below the age of 20, the current death tally sits at zero. 

Can the above data be reconciled with LNP’s claim that Lancaster County is being bludgeoned by a “brutally persistent pandemic” that threatens to dismantle our way of life? This question should give us pause about the unprecedented measures that have been billed as necessary to overcome Covid-19. 

Are these sweeping mandates even effective?

Mask ‘madness’

“The madness of anti-maskers must end,”  LNP has demanded. According to the paper, face coverings are “a simple, effective and inexpensive means of keeping people safe,” and mask mandates in schools will “spare parents from the anguish of watching their children struggle to breathe in a pediatric intensive care unit.”

We would be interested in learning more about how LNP concluded that masks in schools protect children from severe cases of Covid-19. The largest study to test this hypothesis, which included 90,000 elementary-school students in 169 Georgia schools, found no clear benefit of school masking requirements. (For those interested in an in-depth examination of the relevant data, we recommend this excellent article published by New York magazine, which argued that there are clear downsides to masking schoolchildren, without any obvious upside. The Atlantic reached a similar conclusion. Neither of these left-leaning outlets can be accused of harboring politically-motivated grudges against mask mandates.)

There are glaring holes in LNP’s hardline stance on masks. But instead of recognizing that the issue is not so clear-cut, the newspaper has suggested that opposition to mask mandates is part of a cynical Republican plot that uses children as political pawns. This is quite an interesting theory: Apparently, Trump supporters are also undermining public health in Sweden, Denmark and countless other (very progressive) countries where children attend school without masks.

According to the New England Journal of Medicine, Sweden has shown a “low incidence of severe Covid-19 among schoolchildren and children of preschool age,” even though the country kept its schools open and did not require masks for students below the age of 16. From March through June 2020, 15 out of around 1.5 million children in the country were admitted to the ICU for Covid-19. Several of them had serious underlying conditions, including cancer. None of them died. 

There is obvious room for respectful, informed disagreement over mask mandates. So why is LNP painting this issue as black-and-white? At the very least, the newspaper should stop hurling abuse at those who oppose a policy that has no clear benefit.

Vaccines: the data calls for caution, not coercion

Echoing much of the national media, LNP has hailed Covid-19 vaccines as “safe [and] effective,” claiming that these drugs have been subjected to “rigorous testing and exhaustive assessment” by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

A more balanced analysis would acknowledge that it’s far from clear that the potential benefits of vaccination outweigh the known (and unknown) risks for age groups that are not in serious danger from Covid-19. 

In February, NPR reported that “key questions” about the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines would be difficult to answer because participants in drug trials who were given placebos were later administered the actual shot — meaning there are no control groups for long-term observation and research. 

This alone is highly irregular. But the review process for these vaccines has also been stained by questionable practices. When Pfizer applied for full approval of its coronavirus vaccine, the FDA refused to hold a formal advisory committee meeting to allow for an independent review of the drug’s safety and efficacy. 

Kim Witczak, a drug safety advocate who serves as a consumer representative on the FDA’s Psychopharmacologic Drugs Advisory Committee, said the move to bypass this review stage departed from well-established norms and “could set a precedent of lowered standards for future vaccine approvals.”

“It is already concerning that full approval is being based on 6 months’ worth of data despite the clinical trials designed for two years,” she told the British Medical Journal in August, adding: “There is no control group after Pfizer offered the product to placebo participants before the trials were completed.”

To put this all in context: It usually takes around a decade of trials before the FDA will even consider granting approval to a vaccine. In a 2019 document titled “The Complex Journey of a Vaccine,” the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations (IFPMA), a leading pharmaceutical lobby, noted that vaccine development requires a “very large safety database” — a process that requires years of thorough testing and observation. Phase I trials typically take two years, while Phase III studies can sometimes last 10 years. The process of regulatory approval requires up to two years — longer than Covid-19 has even been around to vaccinate against. “The benefit of the vaccine must significantly outweigh any risks” in order for the drug to be licensed, the IFPMA explained. 

A graphic published by the IFPMA in 2019 explained the lengthy process required before a vaccine can go to market

Some might argue that 6 months’ worth of data that contains no control group is not enough to meet this rigorous threshold, particularly given the rushed manner in which Pfizer’s shot received the green light from the FDA. 

These issues came to the forefront when FDA officials met on September 17 to discuss approval for Pfizer’s booster. Numerous experts who spoke during the meeting’s public hearing session raised concerns about insufficient data and even highlighted evidence that low-risk groups are perhaps better off not getting the shot due to the possibility of serious adverse reactions to the drug.

Dr. Doran Fink, deputy director of FDA’s vaccines division, said during the advisory committee meeting that for some age groups, the “balances of risks versus benefits” did not work in the vaccine’s favor. According to the FDA official, available data suggests that men under the age of 40 are more likely to develop myocarditis from the vaccine than to contract a severe Covid-19 infection.

The advisory committee ultimately decided that boosters were only appropriate for patients over the age of 65.

Incredibly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) overruled this decision and endorsed the booster for people ages 18 to 64 who are at “increased risk of being exposed to the virus” — even after the FDA determined that for many people who fit into this category, the vaccine may be more dangerous than the disease it’s supposed to shield against. 

Is this the “rigorous testing and exhaustive assessment” that LNP was referring to? A bit more nuance is surely in order.

It’s also puzzling that the newspaper has chosen to openly scapegoat Lancaster County residents who have declined to get the shot. According to LNP, unvaccinated people are “literally making other people sick.” 

Literally, how? The vaccines do not stop transmission — making it rather difficult to argue that immunization is necessary to protect others from infection. In Massachusetts, one of the most-vaccinated states in the country, “breakthrough” infections currently account for roughly 40% of weekly Covid-19 cases. (This was also true at the start of September. In fact, breakthrough cases have actually been steadily increasing over the past month.)

The efficacy of Pfizer’s vaccine nearly halves after just six months, while those who have developed natural immunity to the virus enjoy a higher level of protection against Covid-19 than people who got the jab. 

How does natural immunity fit into LNP’s vision for compulsory vaccination? We don’t recall the paper mentioning naturally obtained protection in any of its fiery sermons against the unvaccinated. 

A call for good-faith dialogue

LNP should rethink its inflexible, inflammatory rhetoric and use its platform to foster constructive debate about mask and vaccine mandates.

The newspaper challenged its readers to offer an alternative to mask and vaccine mandates. Rather than sweeping measures that have far-reaching ethical and social consequences, we would advocate for a more targeted approach to the problem. 

The renowned epidemiologist Donald Henderson, credited with eradicating smallpox, was a vocal opponent of lockdowns and other invasive, coercive measures that disrupt ordinary life. He argued that when trying to contain a disease, a scalpel is often more effective than a hammer:

Experience has shown that communities faced with epidemics or other adverse events respond best and with the least anxiety when the normal social functioning of the community is least disrupted. Strong political and public health leadership to provide reassurance and to ensure that needed medical care services are provided are critical elements. If either is seen to be less than optimal, a manageable epidemic could move toward catastrophe.

Everyone wants to avoid catastrophe. Let’s begin talking with one another — without the vitriol and manic suspicion.

Login to comment