Philadelphia’s decision to reinstate indoor mask mandates represents a failure to adapt policy to the changing nature of the public health challenge.
Much has changed since federal, state, and local governments first invoked emergency powers to combat the spread of COVID-19. Immunity, whether natural or acquired through vaccines, is much more widespread, and breakthrough treatments are available.
The disease may never be completely eradicated, so it’s time to return to a public health policy that prizes individual liberty over government authority.
City officials aren’t the only people reluctant to relinquish the emergency powers they have wielded for more than two years.
The Biden administration also is clinging to these powers. Granted, the administration has eased some COVID-related restrictions, urging a return to workplaces, schools, and public gatherings, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn’t currently recommend indoor masking throughout most of the country, including Philadelphia.
But the CDC announced this week that it will continue to require airline passengers to wear masks, ignoring studies by Harvard University and the Department of Defense. These studies found that airplane cabins are among the safest indoor environments, with air constantly filtered, exchanged, and properly directed. And Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra is expected next week to extend the federal public health emergency, already in its third year, for another 90 days.
This approach to COVID is rooted in unrealistic “zero COVID” policy goals. The only virus that was ever truly eradicated was smallpox — and that took nearly 200 years.
Lockdowns and mask mandates have failed to shut down the virus either here or abroad. Nor have vaccines. So what will? Neither the president nor any state or local official has offered any eradication strategies.
Going forward, the better policy path is for public health officials to acknowledge that they cannot eradicate COVID-19 and that it has likely joined the ranks of diseases with which we coexist.
Living with COVID is not surrendering to the pathogen. It is government accepting reality and surrendering the extraordinary control it has exercised over the lives of 330 million Americans.
Public health officials should begin by making it clear that the realities of April 2022 are nothing like the nightmare of April 2020.
The coronavirus is no longer novel. Thanks to medical innovations and natural immunity, many of our bodies can now recognize the pathogen and are far better positioned to combat it. More than 218 million Americans are fully vaccinated, 99 million have received boosters, and an estimated 140 million people — some of whom also were immunized — have recovered from the virus.
The Heritage Foundation’s statistical analysis indicates that those who decide to get vaccinated are at much lower risk of severe cases of COVID than people who are not vaccinated. Fully vaccinated people under the age of 50 are two to 40 times more likely to die from homicide than COVID.
When fully vaccinated and boosted, even older Americans — those aged 65 and up — are at much lower risk of dying from COVID-19 than from other ailments, including heart disease, cancer, and chronic illnesses.
For those who opt not to get vaccinated, widely available antivirals are highly effective in preventing severe illness and hospitalizations. One product, an oral medication called Paxlovid, is 88% effective at preventing severe disease. Under the administration’s “test to treat” initiative, people who test positive for COVID at certain pharmacies can take the medicine home with them.
And for those who have already had COVID, natural immunity is as robust, if not more so, than immunity conferred from vaccines, according to the CDC.
We can live — without government mandates — with a virus whose worst effects are muted by immunity and antivirals, just as we live with other diseases that pose substantial threats to the elderly and medically vulnerable.
None of that was true more than two years ago when federal, state, and local officials first declared states of emergency. Today, there is no need for those declarations to remain in force.
Rescinding federal emergency declarations will have collateral effects. Higher Medicaid payments to states, for example, are linked to the federal emergency. State coffers are overflowing, and the tens of billions in additional spending is contributing to inflation. These payments should cease.
Other temporary provisions linked to the emergency, like telemedicine, should be extended. First widely deployed as an expedient when the government restricted nonemergent medical care, telemedicine has proved enormously popular. Congress should permanently authorize it.
Temporary policies linked to the emergency declarations should stand or fall on their own merits, but the states of emergency themselves should expire.
We can — and must — learn to live with COVID. And city officials in Philadelphia and beyond must learn to live without emergency powers that are no longer necessary or appropriate.
Doug Badger is a senior fellow for domestic policy studies at the Heritage Foundation. Data scientist and research fellow Kevin Dayaratna is the think tank’s principal statistician.