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Gov. Walz is not following ‘the science’ in banning your family Thanksgiving

For the most part, Minnesotans have been very poorly served by their media during the Covid-19 pandemic. For example, we get a constant stream of stories about the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which led to four hospitalizations and one death in Minnesota, but an almost total silence on the failure of the state government to protect Minnesota’s care homes, where 71% of Minnesota’s Covid-19 deaths have occurred. When, with Thanksgiving approaching, Gov. Tim Walz restricted the size of indoor and outdoor private gatherings to 10 and under and limited them to people from just three households, he claimed, as usual, that he was following ‘the science’ and ‘the data’. Minnesota’s media did not question him.

“I worry about this narrative that doesn’t yet seem to be data-based.”

Of course, when Gov. Walz says this it is often not true. Fortunately, Monday’s New York Times posed the question it would occur to few of our state’s journalists to ask: ‘Small gatherings spread the virus, but are they causing the surge?‘ The article’s author, Apoorva Mandavilli, wrote:

As states struggle to contain the resurgent coronavirus, many officials are laying the blame on an unexpected source: people gathering with family and friends.

Household get-togethers undoubtedly do contribute to community transmission of the virus. Canada’s recent Thanksgiving certainly added to its rising cases; such an increase may happen here, too, as the United States embarks on a holiday season like no other. That’s why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday warned so strongly against gathering with others outside the household during Thanksgiving.

But are dinners and backyard barbecues really the engine driving the current surge of infections? The available data do not support that contention, scientists say. Still, the idea has been repeated so often it has become conventional wisdom, leading to significant restrictions in many states.

In dozens of statements over the past weeks, political leaders and public health officials have said that while previous waves of infection could be linked to nursing homes, meatpacking plants or restaurants, the problem now is that unmasked people are sitting too closely in kitchens and living rooms, lighting thousands of small COVID fires that burn through their communities.

But many epidemiologists are far less certain, saying there is little evidence to suggest that household gatherings were the source of the majority of infections since the summer. Indeed, it has become much harder to pinpoint any source of any outbreak, now that the virus is so widespread and Americans may be exposed in so many ways.

“Somebody says something, and somebody else says it, and then it just becomes truth,” said Julia Marcus, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Harvard University. “I worry about this narrative that doesn’t yet seem to be data-based.”

…it is not good to suggest that they are now the preponderance of the source of spread.”

Larger events, such as weddings and funerals, “especially if held indoors, certainly can drive infections”, Mandavilli writes, but:

…the same cannot be said of smaller private gatherings with friends and family. In Colorado, only 81 active cases are attributed to social gatherings, compared with more than 4,000 from correctional centers and jails, 3,300 from colleges and universities, nearly 2,400 from assisted living facilities, and 450 from restaurants, bars, casinos and bowling alleys.

In Louisiana, social events account for just 1.7% of the 3,300 cases for which the state has clear exposure information.

“It’s important to give good public health advice about what’s coming in the holidays, no doubt about it,” said Dr. Tom Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “But it is not good to suggest that they are now the preponderance of the source of spread.”

“It seems like they’re passing off the responsibility for controlling the outbreak…”

So why the political fixation on such get-togethers? Frankly, Gov. Walz doesn’t know what is going on with Covid-19 in Minnesota. The Department of Health’s Weekly Covid-19 Reports for September 17th and November 12th show that 54.2% of new cases over that period were traced to ‘Unk./Missing’ while another 14.9% were labelled ‘Community (no known contact)’ which the Department of Health defines as:

Case has no known exposure to a positive case and does not fit into any of the previous categories.

In short, over the period of this second surge, we have no idea where 69.1% of the diagnosed cases were exposed. So, Mandavilli writes:

Social gatherings have become a convenient scapegoat for political leaders flummoxed by the steeply climbing numbers, some experts said.

“It seems like they’re passing off the responsibility for controlling the outbreak to individuals and individual choices,” said Ellie Murray, an epidemiologist at Boston University. “A pandemic is more a failure of the system than the failure of individual choices.”

These recommendations are unscientific and “bizarre”

Mandavilli reports that: “in some states the misperception has led to draconian policies that don’t square with science”, citing Minnesota as an example:

Gov. Tim Walz of Minnesota on Wednesday took the extraordinary step of banning people from different households from meeting indoors or outdoors, even though evidence has consistently shown the outdoors to be relatively safe.

But the executive order allows places of worship, funeral homes and wedding venues — while they are encouraged to hold virtual events — to host as many as 250 people indoors.

These recommendations are unscientific and “bizarre,” said Ashleigh Tuite, an infectious disease modeler at the University of Toronto.

“If people are going to meet up, doing so outdoors is probably the lowest-risk way to do it,” she said. “Telling people they can’t spend time safely outdoors isn’t a rational approach. People are going to recognize that and push back.”

This is an impressive bit of reporting. It lays bare the myth that there is any really solid ‘science’ or ‘data’ behind some of Gov. Walz’ actions.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment. 

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