Record editorial: Mistrust of science is a dangerous contagion of its own
By every measure, we’re in the midst of the worst pandemic in a century.
Unfortunately, there are strains in our country of another contagion that is exacerbating the already-calamitous situation: the mistrust of science.
The problem afflicts an alarmingly high percentage of our population. And it is not unique to any one political persuasion. Rather, it comes in a few different forms, each hazardous during a crisis like the one the country is facing.
Over the last few months, it has manifested itself in people ignoring the expertise of those who’ve devoted their professional lives to studying viruses and discounting the data they’ve gleaned about COVID-19. A scroll through Facebook is all it takes to understand the breadth of the problem.
There are those who say the coronavirus is little more threatening than the seasonal flu. They make the claim despite overwhelming evidence that COVID-19 spreads more quickly than the flu and is much more lethal (though experts have not yet pinned down the exact fatality rate). Often, the refrain is made in an attempt to bolster the argument that it’s time to get rid of restrictions enacted to slow the coronavirus, or that the restrictions were unnecessary to begin with.
The danger in that rationale is real. A University of Washington mathematical model often cited by the White House now predicts the coronavirus will kill nearly 135,000 people in the U.S. through early August, with a sharp uptick in projected deaths stemming from the loosening of social distancing measures in many states. No model is entirely accurate, but the takeaway reflects what epidemiologists have been saying for months: People will die if we return to normal too quickly.
Likewise, anti-vaxxers have seized on the pandemic to further their own anti-science agenda, issuing dire — and baseless — warnings about the supposed threat an eventual coronavirus vaccine would present. Their weapons include thinly veiled disinformation masquerading as science and conspiracy theories designed to stoke skepticism of both the government and health experts.
Lest anyone think anti-vaxxers are a harmless cluster operating on the fringes: A survey conducted by a pair of researchers at the University of Minnesota and Oklahoma State University recently found that nearly a quarter of Americans would not be willing to receive a coronavirus vaccine, a percentage that experts say would potentially imperil the effort to achieve herd immunity against COVID-19 through vaccination.
In a country where the scientific pursuit of putting a man on the moon once united us in patriotic pride and where intellectualism was championed as a virtue, the eagerness of a vocal minority of Americans to spurn the science surrounding the coronavirus has been disappointing, if not, unfortunately, surprising given the long march that has led us to this point.
In contrast, one looking for evidence of the power of science to combat the pandemic need look no further than Summit County.
Health officials here, guided by health data, took drastic measures to slow the spread of the disease in March. Based on the number of per-capita cases, Summit County was initially one of the nation’s relative hot spots, but a fact-based response to the crisis has limited its health damage here thus far.
As of Friday, there have been 33 reported coronavirus hospitalizations in the county and, remarkably, no deaths. What’s more, while officials — again armed with science — are adamant that a return to pre-pandemic normalcy likely won’t occur until there’s a vaccine, the county’s approach has allowed us to begin slowly reopening the economy without inappropriately risking residents’ safety.
How do you get through the biggest public health crisis in 100 years? The answer, as local health officials have shown us, has been there all along: use science and facts.
Looking for some truth amid the misinformation swirling during the pandemic? How’s that for a place to start?
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Our view: Time is of the essence. Unless we rein in the virus now, we and the rest of Utah will be in for a harrowing winter, a fright fest that will be all too real.