Guest Post by John T. Dagenhart
Nearly two decades ago, a well-known figure gazed into one of C-SPAN’s cameras to answer a question during a live call-in program. “[Y]ou can’t control people’s behavior, but what you can do is you can educate, and you can try to modify behavior,” the figure advised. “[T]he only way you can do that effectively is to create an environment in which you don’t force people who are the subjects or the targets of your education and behavioral modification . . . underground.”
“You’ve got to create a situation where people understand that they’re not going to be stigmatized, that they’re not going to lose their human rights when they find out they’re infected,” the figure argued. However, “[i]f you make your education in an environment of oppressiveness, you’re not going to get to the people that you need to get to.” The key is “[n]ot oppressing or forcing people to do things because it doesn’t work that way.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci wasn’t quoting a monologue from Atlas Shrugged during his July 2002 appearance on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal. The future “America’s Doctor” was trying to answer a caller’s question about the link between behavior, including bathhouse sex, and the spread of AIDS. The caller wanted to know “how we can control the behavior of people in foreign countries when we can’t control the behavior in our country.”
Fauci flatly rejected the notion of controlling people’s behavior and invoked human rights and individual autonomy. Given his support for shuttering houses of worship, closing businesses, banning mass gatherings, mandating masks, and other government edicts to control COVID-19, Fauci’s 2002 views on behavior and AIDS are curious to say the least.
The Revolution Was — And Still Is
“There are those who still think they are holding the pass against a revolution that may be coming up the road,” Garet Garrett wrote. “But they are gazing in the wrong direction. The revolution is behind them. It went by in the Night of Depression, singing songs to freedom.”
Garrett, a critic of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his Brain Trust, was describing the New Deal’s impact on American life — a development which brought about a permanent American bureaucratic class, what is referred to now as the administrative state. Regardless of whether you think that is a good thing or a bad thing, no one can dispute that the New Deal altered the relationship between the American people and the federal government in significant, lasting ways. It was, in one word, revolutionary.
What’s happened throughout the world since March 2020, but particularly in America and the West, has been no less revolutionary. As late as February 2020, the libertarian Mises Institute’s Jeff Deist could write that China’s policy of “cordon[ing] off whole cities by dictatorial fiat and impos[ing] wholesale house arrest over cities” was something “unthinkable in Western countries.”
And if such profound restrictions on freedom could happen in the West, they certainly couldn’t happen in freedom-loving America. Consider the following moment from a 2012 event hosted by the New York Academy of Sciences in New York City. The event featured a panel which included journalist Maryn McKenna and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Dr. Daniel Jernigan. McKenna, flanked by Jernigan, speculated that the measures implemented in Toronto, Canada in response to SARS would be non-starters in America.
“In Toronto, one of the reasons that they managed to contain SARS, particularly the second time, is I think uniquely because it was Toronto,” McKenna explained to her Manhattan audience. “Because it was a place where the stated goals of the constitution are peace, order, and good government, not life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, where when you ask 30,000 people to stay home they do it,” she said, while the audience and her fellow panelists chuckled. “Would that have worked in the United States if SARS had come here? I think not.” [C-SPAN, Global Pandemic Prevention October 17, 2012, McKenna remarks at 1:02:22 mark.]
The unthinkable is here. The revolution is behind us, to use Garrett’s words, and perhaps here to stay. Many want to know about the origins of the coronavirus. Was the virus that causes COVID-19 made in a laboratory? Did the virus arise naturally in a Wuhan wet market? Did the Chinese Communist Party deliberately release the virus? Did gain-of-function research paid for by American taxpayers lead to the virus? Did Fauci lie to Congress?
These are worthy questions. But it would be a mistake to focus on those questions exclusively. There is a far more important origin story that must be explored, concerning the only thing about the COVID-19 pandemic no one can deny was manmade: the lockdowns, fashioned for the masses in the corridors of power, instituted in the name of fighting the virus.
For all his faults, Chairman Xi Jinping did not lock Americans down — our own leaders did. Even if it were proven beyond doubt that Xi himself personally developed the virus at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, walked out of the building, and released it into an unsuspecting world, he still wouldn’t be responsible for the enormous social turmoil the virus caused in America. That is entirely on the people who run the United States. And when the next public health crisis hits, our ruling class will bring the lockdowns back.
This Revolver report explores how the land of the free became the home of the locked down. Here we explore the U.S. public health establishment’s response to previous crises. This report shows that, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Fauci and others in the U.S. public health establishment cast doubt on the effectiveness of shutdowns, questioned the use of masks to prevent the spread of respiratory disease, acknowledged natural immunity, and reserved school shutdowns only for the most extreme pandemic scenarios. What emerges from this portrait is that the lockdowns — the measures that consigned the elderly to die alone in nursing homes, sent people already living on the edge back into the clutches of substance abuse, and shuttered small businesses — were based less on science and compelling evidence than on pseudo-science and speculation. The smoking gun in this case is the body of statements and evidence from the “experts” themselves prior to 2020.
The War on Terror Meets Public Health
According to the CDC, the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic killed “at least 50 million worldwide with about 675,000 [deaths] occurring in the United States.” Efforts to combat that pandemic, the CDC says, “were limited to non-pharmaceutical interventions such as isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants, and limitations of public gatherings, which were applied unevenly.” Public health scholars use the terms “non-pharmaceutical interventions” or “NPIs” to refer to measures like social distancing.
Early in his second term in office, during a July 2005 working vacation, President George W. Bush read a history on the 1918 pandemic called The Great Influenza by John M. Barry. “During a news conference in the Rose Garden in September when Bush was being hammered about his response to [Hurricane] Katrina,” Time reported the President wanted to change the subject. “[H]e seemed eager to show how much he’d been studying and pondering the possible consequences of a flu pandemic for the nation and the world.”
In November 2005, Bush laid out his pandemic response plan in a speech at the National Institutes of Health. The speech drew a who’s who of the U.S. and international public health establishment, including Fauci and Dr. J.W. Lee, former Director General of the World Health Organization. According to Time, Bush “used vocabulary and tactics that are familiar from his confrontation with global terrorism.” Bush identified the enemy as “pandemic flu” which he defined as “a new strain of influenza . . . that can be transmitted easily from person to person and for which there’s little to no natural immunity.” The President laid out an approach which featured overseas and domestic detection, stockpiling vaccines and antiviral medications, rapid vaccine development, and mobilizing federal, state, and local resources.
With respect to vaccines, Bush complained that “the number of vaccine manufacturers in America has plummeted as the industry has been flooded with lawsuits,” which “leaves our nation vulnerable in the event of a pandemic.” Bush urged Congress to “pass liability protection for the makers of life-saving vaccines.” A little more than a month later, Congress responded by enacting the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act or PREP Act, which provides manufacturers of pandemic countermeasures such as the COVID-19 vaccines, and every element of the supply chain up to and including the health care providers who inject them into patients, with immunity from lawsuits.
What recourse did Congress and Bush provide for Americans injured by pandemic countermeasures like the COVID-19 shots? Generally, people injured by defective products can sue for damages in state court. You can sue if you get hurt by hot coffee when it spills or if you buy a lemon car. Vaccines are different. In 1986, Ronald Reagan signed the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act, which created an excise-tax-financed fund from which vaccine injuries would be paid out, shielding manufacturers from liability. The Vaccine Injury Compensation Program provides payouts for lost wages, pain and suffering, and provides a pathway for injured plaintiffs to get attorney’s fees.
The PREP Act gives people injured by covered countermeasures like the COVID-19 vaccines more limited recourse. As the Congressional Research Service reports, the PREP Act limits claims to damages to medical expenses, lost wages (capped at $50,000 per year), and a limited death benefit. You also have to bring a claim within 1 year of getting the shot as opposed to 3 years from injury under the other vaccine compensation program. The PREP Act compensation program is financed by general appropriations. That means the costs are socialized, picked up by American taxpayers, not manufacturers. The PREP Act passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. The anti-socialist, limited government party mustered a mere 16 no votes.
While Bush hailed vaccines during his speech, the President didn’t tout non-pharmaceutical interventions, at not least explicitly. Bush did make the case that, unlike the vaccine manufacturers, “every American must take personal responsibility for stopping the spread of the virus,” but he did not elaborate on what that meant. Instead, the President directed the public to a newly-created website, www.pandemicflu.gov, which proclaimed at the time that “[s]chools and businesses might close,” and public gatherings “might be canceled,” in order to “try to prevent disease spread,” but gave no indication for how long such closures and cancellations would last.
Similarly, the Bush Administration’s National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza, also published in November 2005, stated that “individual action is perhaps the most important element of pandemic preparedness and response,” such that “limitation of attendance at public gatherings and non-essential travel for several days or weeks” may be necessary. Nowhere though did that document call for or otherwise forecast wholesale business shutdowns, bans on religious gatherings, and school closures for months on end.
Who Controls the Past: Perspectives on 1918
Given the book’s role in stirring Bush to action, what did Barry’s The Great Influenza actually say about NPIs? Barry criticized Philadelphia’s decision to allow a Liberty Loan parade to proceed, linking the parade to an influenza case spike that filled the City’s hospitals to capacity. [The Great Influenza, pp. 220-221.]
Later in the book, Barry suggests the conditions of South Philadelphia’s streets which “literally stank of rot and excrement” could have played a role. [Ibid. p. 326.] On this point, Barry quotes a doctor who had previously urged that the parade be cancelled: “Dirty streets, filth allowed to collect and stand until, germ-laden and disease-breeding, it is carried broadcast with the first gust of wind—there you have one of the great causes of the terrible epidemic.” [Ibid.] Interestingly, Barry reports that the “public health experts” of that time “flatly rejected that idea.” [Ibid.]
The Great Influenza acknowledges the limitations of NPIs. As Barry observed in the following passage, even civilization-destroying isolation or a return to the state of nature wasn’t enough to stay the Spanish flu’s hand. The following passage drives the point home:
No medicine and none of the vaccines developed could prevent influenza. The masks worn by millions were useless as designed and could not prevent influenza. Only preventing exposure to the virus could. Nothing today can cure influenza, although vaccines can provide significant—but nowhere near complete—protection, and several antiviral drugs can mitigate its severity.
Places that isolated themselves—such as Gunnison, Colorado, and a few military installations on islands—escaped. But the closing orders that most cities issued could not prevent exposure; they were not extreme enough. Closing saloons and theaters and churches meant nothing if significant numbers of people continued to climb onto streetcars, continued to go to work, continued to go to the grocer. Even where fear closed down businesses, where both store owners and customers refused to stand face-to-face and left orders on sidewalks, there was still too much interaction to break the chain of infection. The virus was too efficient, too explosive, too good at what it did. In the end the virus did its will around the world.
It was as if the virus were a hunter. It was hunting mankind. It found man in the cities easily, but it was not satisfied. It followed him into towns, then villages, then individual homes. It searched for him in the most distant corners of the earth. It hunted him in the forests, tracked him into jungles, pursued him onto the ice. And in those most distant corners of the earth, in those places so inhospitable that they barely allowed man to live, in those places where man was almost wholly innocent of civilization, man was not safer from the virus. He was more vulnerable. [Ibid 358-9]
In the words of journalist Alex Berenson, “virus gonna virus.” Did Bush read this part of the book? For that matter, did Bill Gates, who wrote last year that the book “taught me a lot about the Spanish Flu”? Will anyone ask them?
How did others receive The Great Influenza when it first came out? The Journal of Public Health Policy published a critical review of the book. Dr. Stephen C. Schoenbaum, a physician solidly within the U.S. medical establishment, asked whether “[d]espite the lack of a vaccine, antivirals, or antibiotics,” if “it was possible to have done more to blunt the impact of the 1918 pandemic on the population of the United States and its military?” According to Shoenbaum, “[a] reasonable argument can be made that less crowding of people, such as the military in barracks or on ships, could have reduced the mortality somewhat.” Schoenbaum went further, calling Barry’s contention “that early and strict quarantine might have made a substantial effect on the pandemic” something “highly debatable.” “Reasonable argument can be made,” “could have,” “somewhat,” “highly debatable” — none of this looks like a full-throated endorsement of NPIs such as lockdowns.
In its review of The Great Influenza, The New York Times described how “a panicky public rushed in with its own theories and prescriptions.” The Times noted in a disapproving way how “[l]aws were hastily passed” and that in one Arizona town “it became illegal to shake hands.” Meanwhile, “people in Phoenix decided dogs were the carriers, and the police began killing strays, while owners killed their pets.” Elsewhere, “San Francisco required its citizens to wear gauze masks—even though the minute influenza virus could pass easily through the webbing—and the police raided hotels to arrest the barefaced.” With respect to masks, Barry himself noted “[t]he masks were useless” in San Francisco and that the city had “simply been lucky.” [The Great Influenza, p. 375.]
Dr. Jeremy Brown, Director of the Office of Emergency Care Research at the National Institutes of Health, has also studied the Spanish flu. Brown’s work on COVID-19 has appeared in The Atlantic and in the Wall Street Journal, and the doctor has been featured as a guest on numerous radio and television programs.
In March 2019, Brown spoke about his book Influenza and the 1918 pandemic. Brown noted how “theatres were closed in some places” and how “stores had staggered hours.” Brown observed that, based what was known at the time, “keeping away from people [was] probably a good idea.” [C-SPAN, Influenza, March 5, 2019, at 7:58 mark.] “Probably” is not certain.
Brown also commented on masks. [Ibid. at 50:00 mark] “Masks do something,” Brown said. But “the question is what is it stopping, it might be stopping your secretions if you cough and the mask catches literally the sputum that you’re coughing out, does it stop the viral particle that someone else coughed out from creeping through the mask, almost certainly not.” [Ibid] Brown stated that “when they become clogged [masks] are useless and not doing anything.” Referring to a photograph from the 1918 pandemic he showed his audience earlier in the lecture, Brown said “the happily married couple, hugging each other wearing face masks” was more “of a PR example and something that does probably very, very little.” [Ibid]
However, in August 2020 PBS’ News Hour turned to Brown to weigh in on a story on the “cultural exploration of face masks.” Then, at least in front of Judy Woodruff’s audience, Brown suddenly contended that masks “were extraordinarily important” in 1918, and that “[i]t was well understood by then that masks were useful.”
Historian Nancy Tomes, a Professor at Stony Brook University, has also studied the Spanish flu. In March 2020, Tomes delivered a lecture to her students on the 1918 pandemic. [C-SPAN, 1918 Influenza Pandemic, March 10, 2020.] Tomes noted the different views on mitigation within the public health community at the time, and particularly the argument that “that the economic disruption from forcing everybody to stay home is a public health problem” as well as the impact shutdowns would have on morale. [Ibid. at 58:00 mark.] Tomes said New York City took a “moderate approach,” keeping Broadway, movie theaters, and schools open while staggering business hours.
Tomes reported to her students that “though you can’t 100% show it,” the use of NPIs were correlated with lower death rates in cities that deployed them. [Ibid. at 1:07:28 mark.] (If not “100%,” what can we “show”? More on that to come.) Tomes sounded more certain about masks. “You will not a find a historian that has looked at the gauze masks who will say that really helped because they were too porous and people did not wear them,” she said. [Ibid. at 1:08:03 mark.] Tomes said masks were “more symbolic” and “made people feel better.” [Ibid. at 1:08:20 mark.] The mask “became a symbol of being a really sophisticated person.” [Ibid. at 1:06:23 mark.] The professor also noted the masks worn in 1918 “were really hard to wear” and “hot and sticky.” [Ibid. at 1:03:02.] “Have you ever worn a mask to do work around the house,” Tomes asked her students. “I hate them, my glasses steam up, they’re nasty.” [Ibid. at 1:03:10.]
Tomes set her dislike of masks aside, and donned a face covering for an interview with CBS This Morning days before the 2020 election. Remember Tomes’ assertion less than eight months earlier that “you will not find a historian” that would say that “gauze masks” “really helped” in 1918? CBS offered a different takeaway for its viewers: “Although the materials used for masks in 1918 were less effective than those used today, according to Tomes, masks did lower the number of deaths when coupled with other measures like social distancing.”
A “Paucity of Evidence”
In February 2007, the CDC published its “Community Strategy for Pandemic Influenza Mitigation in the United States.” The “flatten the curve” diagram appeared, along with the argument that NPIs would reduce the burden on the health care system, saving lives while a vaccine is developed.
The CDC acknowledged that all pandemics are not created equal. The agency created a pandemic scenario index.
The index “assumes” a “pandemic without interventions.” [Ibid. p. 34.] As a result, some would argue it is impossible to situate the COVID-19 pandemic on the above spectrum because NPIs have been used in that case. However, the chart above lists the 1918 pandemic as a “20th Century U.S. Experience,” and the CDC expressly states acknowledges NPIs were implemented in that case.
The CDC linked pandemic severity to various NPI responses. [Ibid. p. 36.] In the below chart, and relevant here, CDC defined “consider” as “[i]mportant to consider these alternatives as part of a prudent planning strategy, considering characteristics of the pandemic, such as age-specific illness rate, geographic distribution, and the magnitude of adverse consequences” provided that “[t]hese factors may vary globally, nationally, and locally.” [Ibid.] Something listed as “recommend” refers to a measure “[g]enerally recommended as an important component of the planning strategy.” [Ibid.]
Even in the most extreme pandemic scenario — a category 4 or 5 pandemic — the CDC recommended school closures “should encompass up to 12 weeks of intervention in the most severe scenarios.” [Ibid. p. 10.] In less severe category 2 or 3 pandemics, the CDC advised “short-term implementation” of school closures, “that is, less than 4 weeks.” [Ibid. p. 36.] Of course, in 2020, schools in this country were closed for months on end.
Nowhere does the chart call for wholesale business closures or present a delineation between “essential” and “non-essential” businesses. And again, all the measures were to be filtered through the lens of “age-specific illness rate,” which no one can reasonably dispute skews toward elderly people and people with underlying conditions for COVID-19. The chart recommends face masks in certain settings, but elsewhere in the document, CDC stated “[t]he role of surgical masks or respirators in preventing the transmission of influenza are currently unknown,” and that while “cough etiquette and hand hygiene will be commended universally,” the CDC stated that “the use of surgical masks and respirators may be appropriate in certain settings.”
How long did the CDC recommend these measures remain in place? “It is recommended for planning purposes that communities be prepared to maintain interventions for up to 12 weeks, especially in the case of Category 4 or Category 5 pandemics, where recrudescent epidemics may have significant impact,” the agency explained. [Ibid. p. 13.] “However, for less severe pandemics (Category 2 or 3), a shorter period of implementation may be adequate for achieving public health benefit.” [Ibid.] This recommendation incorporated “the uncertainty around duration of circulation of pandemic virus in a given community and the potential for recrudescent disease when use of NPIs is limited or stopped, unless population immunity is achieved.” [Ibid.] Acknowledging natural immunity as part of overall population immunity, the agency explained that “[i]mmunity to infection with a pandemic strain can only occur after natural infection or immunization.” [Ibid. p. 45.]
The CDC report discloses the agency’s own limitations. On the same page it presented the “flatten the curve” diagram, the agency explained the following:
Evidence to determine the best strategies for protecting people during a pandemic is very limited. Retrospective data from past influenza pandemics and the conclusions drawn from those data need to be examined and analyzed within the context of modern society. Few of those conclusions may be completely generalizable; however, they can inform contemporary planning assumptions. [Ibid at 18.]
Later on in the report, the CDC stated that “[g]iven the paucity of evidence for the effectiveness of some of the interventions and the potential socioeconomic implications, some interventions may draw considerable disagreement and criticism.” [Ibid p. 20.] The Harvard School of Public Health commissioned a poll in October 2006 which found “most respondents were willing to follow public health recommendations for the use of NPIs,” but that the poll “also uncovered financial and other concerns.” [Ibid. p. 14.]
To address the lack of evidence, the CDC forecast that a “[p]reliminary analysis of historical data from selected U.S. cities during the 1918 pandemic suggests that duration of implementation is significantly associated with overall mortality rates.” [Ibid. p. 13.] It is to that analysis we now turn.
A 2007 JAMA Study Turns the Clock Back to 1918
In 2007, JAMA published an article entitled “Nonpharmaceutical Interventions Implemented by US Cities During the 1918-1919 Influenza Pandemic.” At the time, Anthony Fauci said this publication (and one other) “suggest[ed] that a primary lesson of the 1918 influenza pandemic is that it is critical to intervene early,” and that “nonpharmaceutical interventions may buy valuable time at the beginning of a pandemic while a targeted vaccine is being produced.” The study became a go-to source at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. A writer at Medium cited this study as evidence that “[s]ocial distancing and quarantine measures worked.” Scientific American published a similar discussion of the study around the same time.
In April 2020, one of the co-authors of the JAMA article, the University of Michigan’s Howard Markel, published a joint-oped in The Washington Post, arguing that NPIs save lives, and urging weary Americans to endure them. “In 1918, social distancing measures were kept in place for many weeks, if not months, even if people and businesses did not always support them,” they wrote. “But the key lesson: This approach worked.” The Post op-ed concluded, “As we all endure the hardships of the covid-19 pandemic and dislocations of social distancing, we can take heart that together we will save lives. Just as our forebears did a century ago.” The New Yorker gave Markel a platform to express similar views around the same time.
The study reviewed 115,340 deaths connected to the Spanish flu and the different NPI measures implemented in 43 U.S. cities. Among other things, the authors stated they found “a statistically significant association between increased duration of nonpharmaceutical interventions and a reduced total mortality burden.” [Markel et. al., “Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions,” p. 648.] In the Post op-ed’s parlance, “reduced total mortality burden” can be read as a measure of “saving lives.” The critical scatter plot purporting to demonstrate that point is shown below.
What does the plot show? Let’s start with a statistics refresher or primer. The r on the chart represents the Pearson correlation co-efficient which is the measure of the strength of a correlation between two variables. For example, an r of 1.0 means a perfect correlation between two variables — knowing one gives you the other. An r of 0 means there is no correlation. Keep in mind that correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation — think of the so-called “rule” that the result of the Washington Redskins’ final home game predicts the outcome of a presidential election. The “P” on the chart stands for p-value. A p-value measures the probability that the associations between two variables occurred by random chance—and not on account of a correlative or causal relationship.
Does the chart allow us to infer “together we will save lives,” which was the op-ed’s primary argument? The chart above shows a weak correlative relationship between the time NPIs were in effect and total mortality. The Pearson coefficient reported on the chart is -0.39 for the relationship between the duration of NPIs and total mortality. It is generally accepted that an r co-efficient with an absolute value of less than 0.4 is considered a “low” or “weak” correlation between two variables. Table 1 in this article published on the NIH’s website makes this point. Related, the p-value of 0.005 on the chart means there is a 99.95% chance that the associations presented in the chart did not occur at random. Technically, that is “statistically significant,” but it is probative of an admittedly weak correlation.
What is more, we could not reproduce the Pearson correlation co-efficient shown in the study chart. Taking the data from Table 1 in the JAMA study, we ran the CORREL function in Microsoft Excel against the column titled “Total No. Days of Nonpharmaceutical Interventions” and the “Excess Deaths” column, the x and y axes in the chart, respectively. Our calculation revealed a weaker r co-efficient of -0.35. At the same time, we found that First Case Date, the date of the first reported Spanish Flu case in a city, had an r of -0.46 considered against overall mortality. In layman’s terms, this means, from the face of the data presented in the study itself, there was a greater comparative correlation between how early in 1918 the Spanish flu appeared in a city and overall mortality than there was for the duration of NPIs in that city.
Further, while the 2007 study controlled for population characteristics, it does not appear that it controlled for the conditions of a given city’s streets or the proximity of a city to military installations where the Spanish flu struck. John M. Barry noted that “a Navy ship from Boston carried influenza to Philadelphia, where the disease erupted in the Navy Yard.”
The authors recognized at least “2 outlier cities (Grand Rapids and St Paul) experienced better outcomes with less than perfect public health responses.” [Ibid] We already learned from Professor Tomes that New York City did not close schools, shutdown Broadway, or demand wholesale business closures. The JAMA study authors noted that “New York City mounted an early and sustained response to the epidemic and experienced the lowest death rate on the Eastern seaboard but it did not layer its response.” [Ibid. p. 651.] On the other hand, Denver “responded twice with an extensive menu of nonpharmaceutical interventions that included public gathering bans, school closure, isolation and quarantine, and several ancillary nonpharmaceutical intervention.” [Ibid.] Nevertheless, Denver’s totality mortality was approximately 1.4 times greater than New York City’s.
The April 2020 Washington Post op-ed refers to Denver. In supporting their argument to keep the NPIs in force throughout the United States, the JAMA study’s lead author noted “[c]ases and deaths resurged” in cities where, though they closed schools, leaders otherwise lacked “the political, economic and social will to issue another round of sweeping business closures and gathering bans.” The op-ed authors argued that “masses lined up for movie houses and performance theatres,” contributing to the poor outcomes.
The authors presented the chart below to the left as support for this point. But that chart appears inconsistent with the JAMA study itself. The chart below on the right, taken from the JAMA study, shows “interventions” in a plural sense were not removed in Denver — interventions remained in place after the critical November 11, 1918 date, including quarantine and isolation measures as well as those labeled “other” by the authors, namely “staggered business hours” and “warning signs posted in theatres.” [JAMA Study, p. 652.]
The op-ed’s reporting on Denver also appears inconsistent with other sources. In A Cruel Wind: Pandemic Flu in America, 1918-1920, Dorothy Pettit and Janice Bailie reported that “total closures” of “theatre houses” were “reinstated” in December 1918 throughout the Midwest and the Western parts of the U.S., including in “Des Moines, Topeka, Denver, Atcheson, Wichita, Butte, Gary, and Nebraska City.” [Ibid. p. 126 (emphasis added).] The Influenza Archive says theatres reopened on December 15, 1918.]
Clearly the JAMA study offers flimsy evidence in support of NPIs, regardless of what the “experts” now claim.
CDC’s Updated Pandemic Flu Plan
In 2017, the CDC updated its 2007 pandemic flu plan. The revised plan incorporated new research and evidence from the 2009 H1N1 pandemic. With respect to social distancing measures for schools, workplaces, and mass gatherings, the agency continued to acknowledge that “the evidence base of some of these measures is limited.” [Ibid. p. 18.]
The CDC did cite the evidence base it had — a literature review of twelve different papers on NPIs, including the 2007 JAMA study discussed above. [CDC, Community Mitigation Guidelines to Prevent Pandemic Influenza – United States, 2017, pp. 40-44.] The “conclusions” column, provided by the CDC itself, leaves reason to doubt the efficacy of these measures. “Overall social distancing measures appear modestly effective,” one review notes. “Many are likely to be acceptable in the short-term, but there is lack of strong evidence.” [Ibid. p. 40.] The other eleven CDC-summarized conclusions were the following:
Outside the 2007 JAMA study summarized in the last bullet discussed above, one searches this purported “evidence base” in vain for proof these measures decrease overall mortality or that “staying home” means “saving lives.” If anything, the evidence base is underwhelming considered in view of the liberties government leaders demanded Americans give up throughout 2020. It certainly does not meet the “extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence” standard set forth by Dr. Jeremy Brown.
Finally, as shown below, the CDC largely recommended against the use of face masks by healthy people.
Historical Interlude: Putting Homosexual Men at Risk
During the second 1988 presidential debate, ABC’s Ann Compton asked candidates Michael Dukakis and then-Vice President George H.W. Bush “who are the heroes who are there in American life today?” “I think of Dr. Fauci,” Bush responded. “He’s a very fine research[er], top doctor, at the National Institutes of Health, working hard doing something about research on this disease of AIDS.”
Fauci first rose to national prominence in the context of the AIDS crisis, though initial reviews of his performance were not altogether positive. In And the Band Played On, author Randy Shiltz wrote about how Fauci set off a small panic in the spring of 1983, when Fauci suggested in a JAMA editorial AIDS might be spread through routine household contact. The author of a paper Fauci had cited for this proposition “was astounded that Anthony Fauci could be so stupid as to say that household contact might have anything to do with spreading AIDS,” Shiltz reported. [Ibid. p. 300.] According the study’s author, “[t]he mother obviously infected the child in her womb.” [Ibid.] Shiltz continued:
What was Fauci’s problem?
Upon investigation, Rubenstein learned that Anthony Fauci had not bothered to read his paper before writing the JAMA editorial. Instead, he just read Oleske’s conclusions and started running off at the mouth.
The mechanism by which AIDS was transmitted was no mere academic issue. At the time, it was a condition the public health community acknowledged as a virtual death sentence for those who contracted it. Homosexual men were particularly at risk, and it was thought that homosexual activity within bathhouses might contribute to the spread, as Shultz explained:
From a purely medical standpoint, however, the bathhouses were a horrible breeding ground for disease. People who went to bathhouses simply were more likely to be infected with a disease—and infect others—than a typical homosexual on the street. A Seattle study of gay men suffering from shigellosis, for example, discovered that 69 percent culled their sexual partners from bathhouses. A Denver study found than an average bathhouse patron having his typical 2.7 sexual encounters a night risked a 33 percent chance walking out of the tubs with syphilis or gonorrhea, because about one in eight of those wandering the hallways had asymptomatic cases of those diseases. [Ibid. p. 19]
Not that any of that inspired the CDC to action. Conservative commentator David Horowitz described the agency’s approach in his autobiography, Radical Son.
By the late Seventies, a series of contagions were raging through gay communities, including rectal gonorrhea, syphilis, CMV, and Hepatitis B. Several of the epidemics were linked to cancer and immune-system disorders, and were so extensive that the services they required were costing taxpayers more than a million dollars a day. When I interviewed Don Francis, a top official at the Centers for Disease Control, he explained the rationale of this policy: “We didn’t want to be interfering with an alternative lifestyle.” [Ibid. pp. 338-339]
In 1983, with the AIDS epidemic ongoing, Horowitz reported on the conditions in bathhouses. Simply put, nothing resembling social distancing was happening. “On the top floor is a carpeted viewing room where naked men watch gay porn on a movie screen while idly fondling each other,” Horowitz reported. [David Horowitz, “AIDS: Political Origins of an Epidemic,” in Left Illusions, p. 319.] “Down the hall a middle-aged man stands at one of the stalls that ‘glory holes’ cut in at waist level while a faceless stranger on the other side of the partition performs fellatio on him.” [Ibid]
These places became a cultural flashpoint in Ronald Reagan’s America. Some demanded closure. Others saw them as a symbol of sexual liberation. Who won? According to Horowitz, “[a]s a result of the obstruction of testing, reporting, contact-tracing, and infection site-closing by gay leaders and their allies in the Democratic parties controlling the administrations in these cities, public health officials could not warn communities in the path of the epidemic approaching them.” [David Horowitz, “An American Killing Field,” in Left Illusions, p. 331.] Horowitz called the politicized response to AIDS a “radical holocaust.”
So where was America’s Doctor in all of this? In the context of COVID-19, Fauci has seen it fit to weigh in on Tinder hookups (okay if you’re willing to take a risk). Did he call bathhouses “superspreaders?” Did he criticize their proprietors? Did he call for them to be shut down? Revolver searched, but could not find any evidence that Fauci did in the 1980s, when his voice could have made a difference. His 2002 comments quoted at the outset of this article about the dangers of “controlling behavior” suggest no. The closest we can come to an answer is Fauci’s response to a question posed by The Scientist in 2003:
[Q.:] What were you thinking when you visited the gay bathhouses in the late 1980s?
[A.:] I have gay colleagues and gay friends, but in a straight world, you don’t get the feel of the culture. I really needed to see that. I went through the [bathhouses] and said, this is something that is going to require a lot more than saying ‘just say no.’ [The Scientist]
To be clear, the same man who recommended school and business closures, and barring religious gatherings, said it would take more than a “no” to bathhouses, an undisputed conduit for transmitting not only AIDS, but other sexually transmitted diseases. What comparatively greater value did Fauci see in bathhouses than he did in disrupting the social fabric of tens of millions of Americans of all backgrounds, many of them our most vulnerable fellow citizens, through prolonged lockdowns?
Will anyone ask him? Does anyone care?
SARS, Serosurveillance, and Shutting Down
In 2005, shortly before President George W. Bush would make his public push for what became the PREP Act, Fauci appeared on C-SPAN to talk about U.S. preparedness for a bird flu pandemic. With respect to SARS, which was reported to have a fifty percent mortality rate, Fauci was asked “isn’t it likely though that in this case it isn’t really a fifty percent mortality because we don’t know about the cases we don’t know about.” [C-SPAN, Bird Flu and U.S. Preparedness, October 21, 2005, at 11:13.]
Exactly, and what needs to be done is what we call serosurveillance, and when we went over to Southeast Asia, and when we were talking to our counterparts there, we stressed, and they understand, they didn’t need us to tell us that, to get a feel for the range and scope of this particular virus you need to know how many people, what proportion of people, have actually been exposed and didn’t get sick, because what they’re looking at are only the people who get brought to the attention of the authorities. The reason why we think that there isn’t a lot of what we call sub-clinical infection because when you at the people who are exposed to the people who are infected and sick there’s not a lot of infection and diseases—very, very rarely do we see that. So that indicates that it is not likely doing that, but you don’t know until you look. One of the critical things we need to do is do these serosurveillances and see the prevalence.
How much of a “feel for the range and scope of this particular virus” did Fauci and others in the public health establishment have when they made their NPI recommendations? On April 10, 2020, NIH announced that it would begin a study the number of undetected coronavirus infections, but that was nearly a month after “15 days to slow the spread” began. What took so long? Why wasn’t serosurveillance started sooner? Wouldn’t getting to the “denominator” — i.e., the total number of COVID-19 cases, clinical and sub-clinical — to get to the effective mortality rate be of utmost importance?
Fauci discussed mitigation measures for a pandemic flu. “If you saw an area, city, or town or what have you in the United States you certainly would try a containment response strategy which is try and marshal in a concentrated way the resources there to contain it,” Fauci said. [Ibid. at 40:17.] “But once it [the virus] gets to the point where it spreads reasonably well given our transportation systems in this country, how people get on airplanes, it’s going to be very, very difficult. We have to admit as health officials that regional containment should be attempted, but the chances of success of that with a highly efficient virus is very low.” [Ibid at 41:09]
Fauci told Judy Woodruff in April 2020 that the coronavirus was “being transmitted from human to human” and “it does it very efficiently.” [PBS Newshour, What Dr. Fauci wants you to know about face masks and staying home as virus spreads, April 3, 2020, at 14:05.] So Fauci was talking about a virus like the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 during this 2005 interview.
Fauci was asked about “shutting down the local airport or closing off rail traffic in and out of that area.” [Ibid at 41:50.] Fauci said “you have to keep everything on the table,” but when “the horse is out of the barn and it’s all over, shutting things down is not going to help a lot.” [Ibid at 41:55.] On June 15, 2021, NIH reported the results of a serosurveillance survey showing COVID-19 antibodies from “samples as early as” January 7, 2020 “from participants in Illinois, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.” The survey suggested the coronavirus “was present in the U.S. as far back as December 2019.”
When was the “horse out of the barn,” to use Fauci’s colloquialism, with respect to COVID-19? If it was here months before 15 days to flatten the curve, and in the Midwest, Northeast, and the Deep South, what did “shutting things down,” something Fauci himself said in 2005 “is not going to help a lot,” actually accomplish other than imposing massive economic and social costs? Further, what could going back to these measures possibly accomplish now, more than twenty months after the virus showed up in the United States?
Criticizing Blanket Ebola Quarantines
In 2014, an Ebola outbreak in West Africa was causing concerns, and some governors imposed quarantine requirements on health care workers returning from battling that outbreak abroad. Fauci explained that while those governors were acting in “good faith,” as a “health person, a physician, and a scientist I would say that you look at the data and it tells you what the risk is.” Fauci rejected the two “extremes” of total quarantine and “you can go out and do whatever you want.” Instead, he urged an approach charted by the CDC in which “you match the stratification of a risk of someone being infected.”
Citing the CDC’s recommendations, Fauci said “don’t put everybody in the same bucket where someone is feeling really well coming back, and all of a sudden you say, you can’t come out of an apartment . . . for 21 days.” Fauci expressed concern about “my colleagues.” “We are concerned that health care workers who are donating their own time, when they come back, and have no scientific reason why they should be quarantined, that would be a disincentive for them to go,” he said. [C-SPAN, Dr. Anthony Fauci on Ebola, October 30, 2014, start at 7:58 mark.]
There is no dispute that COVID-19 affects people of different ages and comorbidity levels differently. Why did Fauci support a risk-based approach to Ebola, but not COVID-19? Why do schoolkids and healthy young people get put into the same bucket as older people with multiple co-morbidities?
Pushing Back Against the Paradigm
In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, philosopher and historian of science Thomas Kuhn wrote about scientific progress. The conventional view is a story of steady ascent from the wheel to space travel. Kuhn makes quick work of this view. In his telling, the story of science is one of the dominant view — what Kuhn called a “paradigm — being overthrown by an accumulation of contrary evidence to the point of “crisis.”
For example, up until the late 1700s, scientists believed a fire-like element called phlogiston existed in matter, which was released when a substance burned. Experiments by Antione Laviosier and others led to the discovery that substances burned in the presence of oxygen in air, not due to invisible, weightless phlogiston.
To the extent it is mentioned at all in an introductory chemistry class, phlogiston theory is covered as a passing curiosity. At least advocates of that view had an internally consistent evidentiary base — they just misread the data. Lockdown advocates could not say the same when they stepped forward in 2020 with recommendations that disrupted social and economic life across the planet. Gross errors didn’t stop them or otherwise cause them to make recommendations with a dose of humility.
In pre-revolutionary France, Lavoisier could do work that led to the demise of phlogiston theory. In 21st-Century America, by contrast, contesting narratives can lead to deplatforming and other forms of societal shaming. Dissent on the COVID-19 vaccines and you just might lose your medical license — at least if the Federation of State Medical Boards has its way. Good physicians must share information that is, in the Federation’s words, “factual, scientifically grounded and consensus-driven.” In other words, propagate the paradigm or else. Lavoisier’s work survived Louis XVI, but not the Jacobins, who executed him.
In Structure, Kuhn wrote that “the unparalleled insulation of mature scientific communities from the demands of the laity and of everyday life.” If anything, that insulation has become even more pronounced since Kuhn’s 1962 book. Anyone who has spent time in a university laboratory knows the pressures of “publish or perish” at research institutions, with researchers prowling for government and private grants to fund burgeoning budgets. These researchers’ “clients” are not so much the taxpayers who fund these projects, but the institutions who dole out the funds.
The NIH’s annual budget is more than $40 billion, of which Fauci’s NIAID is close to $6 billion. Setting aside the inherent difficulty of changing a dominant scientific view, no matter how flawed or internally inconsistent it might be, how likely is it for a researcher dependent on the public health bureaucracy’s largesse to dissent from the status quo? In a world where we are told millions of Americans are toting around destructive, inherent, and unspoken biases because of the “privilege” of their skin color, are we to believe that the public health experts who get government grants have no reason or motivation to support the government’s view at the moment?
Our journalist class is either unwilling or incapable of pushing for answers to these questions. As Hanlon’s Razor instructs, we do not seek to attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by incompetence. Many journalists lack the requisite training to ask our scientific elites tough questions. For instance, journalist Amanda Mull, writing in The Atlantic, gifted the world “Georgia’s Experiment in Human Sacrifice.” That article panned that state’s rollback of COVID-19 restrictions. Surely, Amanda had some basic scientific background to issue such a grim diagnosis?
As it turns out, Amanda’s body of work doesn’t indicate any unique gifts in that area. In her pre-Atlantic career, Mull spent more than ten years chasing down the stories of our times, with headlines like “12 New Pieces Amanda Would Love to Have in Her Closet in Spring 2017.”
Courts are also unlikely to provide a backstop against lockdown measures, if and when they come back. With limited exceptions, the courts have done little to roll back any public health measures. Both state and federal courts are generally deferential to government power, particularly on matters of public health and science. And in a battle of experts, the government’s science typically wins.
But free people don’t ask their governments for permission to do things. “Everything which is not forbidden is allowed” is the maxim for this principle. Totalitarian regimes like the Soviet Union operate on the reverse. In those systems, everything not allowed is forbidden. Everything depends on permission from the State. The lockdown regimes in the United States and elsewhere in the West were predicated on this permission-based view. We were told last year that unless you had a reason to be out, you had to stay “safer at home” or face the public health Stasi’s wrath.
The crisis we face is not a public health crisis. The same government that recommended the lockdowns is allowing illegal immigrants to flood across our Southern border with impunity. The public health community that decried the anti-lockdown protests in April 2020 supported the protests after George Floyd’s death. Many who committed acts of lawlessness in those episodes received no punishment as prosecutors declined to prosecute cases.
So what are we, the American people, doing in response? Largely, complying with the latest edicts or talking about moving to Florida, all while thinking that surely the public health establishment will come around and finally agree with us and put an end to the crisis. Well, so far, the “experts” haven’t come around, and they’re unlikely to anytime soon. Human beings don’t like admitting they’re wrong. Haven’t we learned that from our prolonged engagements in Afghanistan in Iraq? But why do we have to wait for Fauci or others to give us the “all clear” in the first place? As this report shows, the establishment has already acknowledged the limitations of NPIs and contradicted itself in mandating these measures.
We are not acting like a free people, and we are getting what we deserve.
This must end. If and when we are told that the mandates must come back, small businesses must close, and houses of worship must shutter, we cannot go along with the program. As Senator Rand Paul said recently, “they can’t arrest all of us.”
If the prosecutions do come, and authorities attempt to levy civil penalties against people who are trying to earn an honest living, spend time with their family or friends, and educate their kids, Americans should recall the words of John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court: “The jury has the right to judge both the law as well as the facts.” Even if the prosecution proves its case beyond a reasonable doubt, juries can look past the facts and law and acquit anyway. As John Adams once explained, “it is not only the juror’s right but his duty . . . to find the verdict according to his own best understanding, judgment and conscience, though in direct opposition to the direction of the court.”
After all, if our government refuses to enforce our immigration laws and prosecutors decline to prosecute rioters, then why should the tens of millions of Americans who voted for President Trump in the last election, or anyone who simply wants to enjoy the basic elements of a free life, continue to play along?
John T. Dagenhart is an independent journalist.
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