CNN expert pummeled on social media for ... opposing Philly's new mask mandate

AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

It’s Dr. Leana Wen, who became an enemy of conservatives in 2021 for being a COVID hawk. And is now an enemy of liberals in 2022 for being a COVID dove.

Except that her position hasn’t really changed between then and now. Wen’s view last year was that the vaccinated should be subject to far fewer restrictions than the unvaccinated in order to encourage Americans to get their shots. She’s not a maximalist “precautions for the sake of precautions” type. She’s all about incentivizing people to model good pandemic behavior and rewarding them with as much freedom as is responsibly possible under the circumstances when they do. She’s walking that walk on Philadelphia’s new mask mandate as well. There may come a time when requiring masks indoors again is sound policy, Wen allows, but cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in Philly right now are all low. So why are we subjecting people to a mandate? Why not let them enjoy some freedom before the next big wave?

That’s the second time in a month that she’s scolded public health authorities for going overboard with masks. (Wen also famously derided cloth masks as impotent “face decorations” during the Omicron wave this winter.) And for the second time in a month, America’s “zero COVID” faction is tearing into her in the replies to her tweets. If you want to see how the other half in America lives with respect to the virus, take five minutes to scroll through the replies here and here and marvel at how Wen’s modest call for restraint in mandates is playing. She’s not asking Philly to ban masks or to discourage masks or even not to recommend them. All she’s asking is for there not to be a strict mandate at a moment when Philadelphians aren’t faced with a major wave.

And she’s getting obliterated for it.

This is my favorite response, a conspiracy theory that Wen is some sort of pro-business shill which somehow overlooks the fact that she endorsed restrictions for many months during the pandemic before vaccines became widely available:

This is representative of the reaction from randos:

There are *many* references to the alleged threat to children if indoor mask mandates aren’t reimposed, proving that strong-form COVID hawks will simply never try to seriously reckon with the fact that kids — especially small kids — are at near-zero risk from the virus.

But it’s not just randos. These people are all experts:

If you want to blunt a developing surge, you need to preempt it with restrictions to head it off. That’s the refrain from public health specialists, but I can’t see how it doesn’t amount to something close to “zero COVID” in its aspirations. Should mandates take effect any time there’s an uptick in cases, no matter how minor, in the name of preventing a potential spike?

The difference between Wen and her experts colleagues is this simple: She believes personal freedom *is* a meaningful consideration in setting policy, modest though it may be. The others seem to believe it’s no consideration at all.

She has an op-ed out today elaborating on her view that’s destined to further antagonize the, shall we say, Beijing wing of the American COVID policy debate.

First, there is no convincing evidence that the rise in cases is so significant that it risks straining hospitals. Other areas in the Northeast, including New York City, have also experienced an uptick in cases, but they are not seeing a subsequent surge in hospitalizations. Just three days before the Philadelphia mask mandate was reimposed, the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania’s Policy Lab wrote on Twitter, “Our team advises against required masking given that hospital capacity is good.”

Second, by deviating so much from CDC guidance, Philadelphia is adding to confusion around public health recommendations. Federal health officials have already changed their focus from preventing infection to reducing severe illness. President Biden’s new coronavirus response coordinator, Ashish Jha, said this week that he is not “excessively concerned” about the rise in BA.2 and that the administration does not expect any substantial changes to its masking guidance. Anthony S. Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser, echoed that shift away from top-down mandates to individual decision-making.

Are Philadelphia officials saying that they disagree with and won’t follow the Biden administration’s approach to the coronavirus? Or do they believe that hospitals will become strained, despite evidence to the contrary? Neither instills confidence, which is crucial to compliance and restoring trust in public health.

Wen’s also worried that if mandates are imposed every other month due to minor spikes in cases, Americans will be more likely to ignore them in the winter when we’re facing a real surge and they might do some good.

At bottom, she’s become a target because she’s allowed her policy recommendations to change as circumstances have changed. Virtually every American over the age of five has acquired some degree of immunity to COVID at this stage by virtue of infection or vaccination. Wen was looking for an off-ramp from the extraordinary measures taken in 2020 and 2021 to try to prevent transmission and now, thanks to widespread immunity, she’s got one. So she’s taking it, which seems sensible to me. But the “it’s just the flu” people won’t forgive her for having ever endorsed restrictions and the Beijing wing won’t forgive her for wanting an off-ramp so she’s stuck being pummeled forever.