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Why ‘Following the Science’ To Minimize Covid Risk May Not Be So Easy

The current stage of the pandemic presents its own set of hard choices and trade-offs. If you wade into the angry, polarized Covid debates on social media and cable television, you will find people who try to wish away these trade-offs. They pretend that science offers an unambiguous answer, and it happens to be the answer they favor.

Proponents of an immediate return to normalcy claim, implausibly, that masks and social distancing do nothing to reduce the spread of Covid and that anyone who says otherwise doesn’t care about schoolchildren. Proponents of rigorous Covid mitigation claim, just as implausibly, that isolation and masking have no real downsides and that anyone who says otherwise doesn’t care about the immunocompromised.

The truth is that Covid restrictions — mask mandates, extended quarantines, restrictions on gatherings, school closures during outbreaks — can both slow the virus’s spread and have harmful side effects. These restrictions can reduce serious Covid illness and death among the immunocompromised, elderly and unvaccinated. They can also lead to mental-health problems, lost learning for children, child-care hardships for lower-income families, and isolation and frustration that have fueled suicides, drug overdoses and violent crime.

Balancing the two is unavoidably vexing. “We need to be better at quantifying risk, and not discussing it in a binary way,” Dr. Aaron Carroll, the chief health officer at Indiana University, told me. (This essay by Carroll made me aware of the C.D.C.’s advice on cookie dough and salt, and I also recommend this Times essay of his.)

As you think about your own Covid views, I encourage you to remember that C.D.C. officials and other scientists cannot make these dilemmas go away. They can provide deep expertise and vital perspective. They are also fallible and have their own biases.

C.D.C. officials tend to react slowly to changing conditions and to view questions narrowly rather than holistically. They often urge caution in the service of reducing a specific risk — be it food-borne illness, fetal alcohol syndrome or the Covid virus — and sometimes miss the big picture. The C.D.C. was initially too slow to urge mask use — and then too slow to admit that outdoor masking has little benefit.

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