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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Columns

Flam: Due to political posturing, COVID questions linger

By F.D. Flam
Published: June 8, 2024, 6:01am

Congress blew its chance Monday to give Americans some insight into the COVID pandemic that dominated our lives for years. Following a 15-month inquiry, Republicans on the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic called Anthony Fauci to testify in public at a special hearing, but committee members spent most of the time posturing rather than probing the former head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Many of us still want to know why the U.S. had more burdensome restrictions yet still lost more people, per capita, than other countries.

Polarization has dumbed our politicians down. Ranking Democrat Raul Ruiz of California spent most of his time flattering Fauci and apologizing to him for the Republicans’ questions. He repeated that the U.S. lost a million people to COVID, as if this justified not asking questions when that number instead cries out for an explanation from our public health leaders.

Americans deserve to know why Fauci and other public health figures issued reassurance rather than warnings back in February 2020, when there was evidence that the virus could be deadly to some, especially the elderly.

Republicans, for their part, harped on Fauci’s earlier statements that the 6-foot rule for physical distancing “just sort of appeared.” They twisted this to imply that Fauci invented it out of the blue and that it alone was the basis of all the business and school closures.

Eventually, scientists gathered data that showed time mattered more than distance — that being in the same room with an infected person more than 30 minutes put you at risk of infection, not being within 6 feet for a few seconds.

Had the public health establishment reacted more quickly to this change in scientific understanding, it would have been even harder to justify indoor dining and bars. Is that really the point Republicans wanted to make?

Other countries justified keeping schools open not by discounting the 2-meter notion, but with data showing that kids were at much lower risk of serious illness than older adults. Americans’ political polarization impaired our leaders’ ability to weigh such risks and benefits.

Illustrating the depths to which our political leaders have sunk, Georgia Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene called to put Fauci in prison. Such rhetoric might be fueling death threats that Fauci, 83, says he still faces.

Fauci started to explain that the 6-foot rule came from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which had to recommend protective measures before scientists fully understood how the new disease spread and which precautions would work best. But our representatives failed to follow up on why the public wasn’t better informed of these precautions’ inherent uncertainty.

Fauci was evasive on questions about vaccine mandates when he repeated that “vaccines save lives” — a statement that’s true but irrelevant. Some cancer screenings and drugs “save lives,” but we don’t force people to get them.

The panel could have questioned whether vaccine and booster mandates should have been lifted once it was clear the shots prevented serious illness only, and had little ability to protect others against infection. But those questions didn’t fit either political party’s preferred narrative — that all vaccine and booster mandates were terrible or that all were essential.

The hearing started on a hopeful note when the chairman, Brad Wenstrup, an Ohio Republican, said, “We should have been honest — especially about what we didn’t know.” That sort of humility is the only way to learn anything, but it keeps getting lost when we choose political leaders who think they already know everything.

F.D. Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering science.