Public health experts grumble about NYT columnist for ... trying to reassure people about COVID

AP Photo/Steven Senne

And so we finally arrive at the stage of the pandemic where the New York Times is too skeptical of COVID restrictions to suit medical pros.

Let me gently suggest that if the beating heart of the liberal media has now begun to chafe against endless precautions, it’s the experts, not the Times, who need to rethink their approach.

The columnist mentioned in the headline isn’t Michelle Goldberg, in case you’re wondering. It’s a strange but true fact that there are multiple writers at the Times these days who are openly questioning the “forever pandemic” logic favored by some on the left. The columnist is David Leonhardt, whom we’ve mentioned here many times as a surprising voice of reason about the virus given the sort of audience he’s writing for. Leonhardt appears to exert a crazy amount of influence among the Democratic intelligentsia about COVID policy, to the point where recommendations made in his columns have been known to turn up in official CDC guidance in short order. According to Politico, the president himself is a fan and believes that “Leonhardt is saying some things that need to be said to those Americans who are excessively cautious even after vaccination.”

What things? Well, lately he’s been trying to convince hypercautious well-educated liberals that being out of school is a greater threat to their children’s health than catching COVID is, which is true. He’s also tried to reassure adults that, with a few important exceptions, they’re at little risk of a dire case of COVID if they’re vaxxed and boosted. I’d summarize Leonhardt’s approach to navigating the pandemic at this stage as one of “cautious normalcy.” If you’ve had three doses and are otherwise in good health then you should feel confident about getting back to normal, knowing that in all probability nothing worse than a week of flu symptoms eventually awaits you. If you’re older, immunocompromised, or coping with a serious health problem, obviously the risk is greater and you need to be more careful.

Which is a basic common-sense view in the era of Omicron, no? Leonhardt’s not taking the anti-vax position that all precautions are useless and it’s time to let it rip. He’s simply refusing to take the opposite view that we should hunker down indefinitely to try to avoid a virus that’s never going away.

And some health experts despise him for that. Politico’s hearing whispers:

Over the last few months, a long-simmering critical conversation among public health experts about Leonhardt’s take and his outsize influence has become more audible. And we don’t just mean on Twitter.

Notable doctors and scientists have written to the Times, individually or in groups, to poke holes in Leonhardt’s coverage of the pandemic. They say that he cherry-picks sources and data, giving too much weight to people who may have medical expertise but not on infectious disease; that he argues strenuously for open schools but downplays the Covid risks for kids as well as their role in spreading the virus; that he held out Britain’s vaccination strategy as a model (right before the U.K. itself reversed course); that he underestimates how many Americans — not all over age 65 — are at elevated risk or live with people at elevated risk. He tends, they say, to look at the virus’ impact on individuals, not the pandemic’s impact on society…

One letter to the Times from a group of prominent pandemic experts, obtained by Nightly (though with the full list of signatures withheld), called his reporting “irresponsible and dangerous.”

“It’s head-exploding,” one exhausted emergency physician told Nightly. “Bonkers.”

There are more specific complaints, some of which are valid. For instance, earlier this month he guesstimated that the daily death toll during the Omicron wave would be much lower than it was during last year’s Delta wave. That was a reasonable assumption considering that there’s more population immunity now than there was then and that various studies have shown Omicron to be innately less virulent than Delta. But Leonhardt was, in fact, wrong:

The peak of last summer’s Delta wave was a shade over 2,100 deaths per day. We’ve zoomed past that, presumably because Omicron is so much more contagious than even Delta that it’s able to reach more vulnerable people than Delta did.

Some sources also grumbled to Politico that Leonhardt overlooks how mild illness can be job-threatening for a low-income worker without sick leave and that he draws too bright a line between senior citizens and the rest of the population in assessing risk. Possibly that’s true, but it’s also unrealistic about who his audience is and what he’s trying to accomplish. Times readers don’t need to be reminded that COVID can kill at any age and that front-line workers are especially vulnerable to infection. They’ve been marinating in that news for two years — so much so that they grossly overestimate the threat to less vulnerable groups like kids and healthy adults. That’s where Leonhardt comes in. He’s trying to deprogram them by reality-checking them on relative risk, and I don’t think “deprogram” is too strong a word.

Even now, with Omicron in decline and the U.S. approaching two full years of COVID misery, Democrats remain on an “emergency” footing with respect to the virus:

Let’s be real. It’s the fact that Leonhardt has taken to pushing back against the “forever pandemic” mentality captured in that graph, not the fact that he occasionally gives short shrift to low-income workers, that’s aggravating the experts who spoke to Politico. He’s annoyed the “forever pandemic” public health bureaucracy. And because he’s doing so from a plum perch at a newspaper that caters to liberal professionals, there’s a whiff of class treason in his approach. “The right-wingers aren’t wrong about wanting to ease up with precautions,” he’s saying. Scandalous.

There may be another dimension to the disgruntlement. Slowly but surely, the “forever pandemic” view is slipping among the broader left. Leonhardt and Goldberg are unusually visible exemplars of it but don’t forget the spate of op-eds that appeared recently from Democratic parents who have lost what’s left of their patience with school closures. No liberal publication has been more obsessively hawkish about COVID than The Atlantic but in the past week they’ve featured no less than three pieces questioning the liberal conventional wisdom about closing schools and masking kids, including one written by Hot Air alumna Mary Katharine Ham. If The Atlantic has decided that enough’s enough, there’s a bona fide sea change in liberal opinion under way. The expert class is unhappy about it and Leonhardt may end up as the lightning rod.