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On the pandemic, don’t cherry-pick your numbers | Editorial
Don't just confirm your own biases. We'll all be better off if we challenge our own assumptions.
Wearing a face mask and shield to protect against the spread of COVID-19, kindergarten teacher Judith Ramos prepares her classroom on Aug. 13 in San Antonio, Texas.
Wearing a face mask and shield to protect against the spread of COVID-19, kindergarten teacher Judith Ramos prepares her classroom on Aug. 13 in San Antonio, Texas. [ ERIC GAY | AP ]
Published Aug. 16, 2020

Florida set a record last week for the most coronavirus deaths on a single day — 277. That’s bad. Yet, the weekly death average has dropped, as have the number of hospitalizations. That’s good. All of those statistics are true and yet each one, taken in isolation, plots a very different map of the pandemic’s course in Florida. So, consider this a cautionary tale: Do not harden your opinion — whatever it is — on dealing with COVID-19, particularly on what schools should be doing. Be open to numbers and facts that contradict your views, and don’t cherry-pick the ones that comport with your own ideas. We have known about COVID-19 for mere months, and our knowledge increases — and changes — by the day. Keep an open mind to new developments and about the best course forward.

For instance:

1. Masks. They’re not a magic amulet. They must be worn properly (cover your nose, please) and made of the right material to work. But they do work. That is, they reduce the spread of droplets that carry the coronavirus and protect the people near the wearer — not so much the wearer herself. However, they are a safety device, a prophylactic — not a political badge. So if you can wear one but refuse to, in a store or an office or near others, you’re part of the problem, not an avatar of personal liberty. But if you’re a conscientious mask wearer, when you’re in the great outdoors and socially distanced from others, don’t feel superior because you’re wearing one and someone else is not. Though you should always have a mask at the ready, being outdoors and apart from one another can be sufficient. Let emerging facts, not emotions, guide the wearing of masks.

2. More masks. Okay, not all masks work. “Neck gaiters,” masks that encase the entire neck and lower face, can be slipped up and down over the mouth and nose easily, and are favored by athletes and others for their comfort and breathability. And they qualify as masks under Pinellas school policies. But a new Duke study showed that the gaiters they tested, made of light fabric that made them “breathable,” could be worse than no mask at all because they broke up large droplets that could carry the coronavirus into smaller droplets, meaning there are more drops, ones that could hang in the air longer — like an aerosol — and be likelier to infect others. Despite this published study, Pinellas public schools pushed ahead with a face mask policy last week that allows neck gaiters. It may seem like a small thing, but is it? Why not adapt to the latest science in real time, particularly if it has real-world effects? If a later solid study offers different insight, then follow that guidance.

3. Is it better for students’ health to be at home or in school? On Thursday, these pages published two differing columns. One cited studies on the dangers of keeping kids out of school beyond the learning loss — that being stuck at home depresses them and their immune systems and concluded that, “Reopening schools could turn out to be the best antidote to COVID-19.” The other column pleaded: “Can people please stop saying that children don’t get sick from the coronavirus and don’t spread it? These statements are being used to justify school reopening, and they’re just not true.” That author pointed out that 338,000 kids have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the United States and that children 10 and older transmit the virus at least as well as adults. If you believed one column more than the other, go back and reread the one you disagree with, and maybe think about why.

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4. Instant temperature checks. Some have derided checking the temperature of each child entering a school as ineffective “pandemic theater,” which looks like decisive action but serves little purpose, since many children could be asymptomatic and have no fever even if they are carrying the coronavirus. But instant temperature checks will certainly catch some kids who have the coronavirus. Will they take too much time? Will they prove relatively worthless? One solution: Test it out. Do they work well enough? Or is the cost in time and convenience too much? Try it and see. Be open to what happens either way.

Even if the first wave of the coronavirus is peaking in Florida, there is a lot of sickness and death still ahead. Ignoring that reality serves no purpose. But it’s not realistic to hunker down until a vaccine is widely available either. Floridians are living their lives and making difficult decisions in the middle ground between the extremes of pretending things are normal or digging a hidey-hole until they are. We would all do well to look at numbers and statistics that call into question the views we hold right now. We might discover some as-yet unperceived ways of getting through this crisis together, an enterprise we all share.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.

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