by Jon Sanders
Research Editor and Senior Fellow, Regulatory Studies, John Locke Foundation
On November 23, moved (we’re supposed to believe) by surging cases of COVID-19 caused (we’re supposed to believe) by people not obeying his face mask order, Gov. Roy Cooper weaponized his longstanding mask order to require people and businesses to be fined for failure to obey. Cooper would even have people fined for not wearing masks in their own homes around people not in their immediate family.
It was the eighth time he has extended his mask order first announced on June 24. Each time he extended it, declaring that masks work, the 7-day average daily case numbers were higher than when he first announced the order. “Our statewide mask requirement has been in effect since June, and it is still our best weapon in this fight,” Cooper somehow declared.
In his press briefing, Cooper and state health bureaucrat Mandy Cohen engaged in more hysteria and fearmongering than usual. “I have a stark warning for North Carolinians today: We are in danger,” Cooper said.
Not one reporter asked them about the test cycle threshold for the PCR tests used to diagnose the vast majority of cases in North Carolina. It’s a stunning omission, given that the state is using a threshold far higher than the research consensus for when the tests stop finding live, infectious virus and starts finding unviable scraps of viral RNA. Other states have found that a test threshold well beyond 30 cycles was flooding their case counts with false positives, as much as 63–90 percent. Read here for more information.
While the governor and his lickspittle media were stoking a police state alongside a panic, the latest recovery numbers were released. Now nearly 300,000 North Carolinians are presumed recovered from COVID-19.
The NC Threat-Free Index numbers for Thanksgiving week are in, and regardless of rising case numbers, the percentage of North Carolinians with active cases is still remarkably low — measured in tenths of a percent. The percentage of North Carolinians who pose no threat of passing COVID-19 to anyone is incredibly high — well above 99 percent.
Here is this week’s index (and read here for an explanation of it):
Cooper’s latest Executive Order cites five “examples of studies studying the effectiveness of face coverings.” These ostensibly represent Cooper’s strongest case for forcing a statewide dress code backed by police enforcement even in your own home. They better be damned convincing.
Three of the five were the ones Cohen presented to legislators a week before Cooper first leveled the mask order (Lyu and Wehby, Zhang et al., and Mitze et al.). I reviewed them in detail here and found them not only unconvincing, but also not applicable to North Carolina. Months later, cases in Italy, Germany, and U.S. states are rising at levels counter to those studies’ models’ predictions.
Chu et al.
What about the other two? Chu et al. is supposed to have found “that Face Coverings could reduce risk of infection by approximately 50% in non-health-care settings.” With that description, Cooper gives a false impression of that study. It is not a study of “Face Coverings.” The study concerns surgical masks, surgical-like masks (12-16 layers), and N95 respirators, not cloth masks. It is a meta-analysis of observational studies (subject to recall and observation biases), not randomized control trials.
Furthermore, Chu et al. had “low certainty” in finding that those masks “might” reduce virus infection. They reference the Precautionary Principle but also acknowledge “strong, perhaps opposing, sentiments about policy making” and “scientific uncertainty” that policymakers ought to “carefully consider” as well.
Even as Chu et al. made “low certainty” findings and cautioned against policymaking without carefully considering scientific uncertainty and “a more nuanced approach,” they did not study “face coverings” as Cooper defines them. Cooper’s definition specifically excludes N95 respirators and surgical masks:
A Face Covering can be made of a variety of synthetic and natural fabrics, including cotton silk, or linen. Ideally , a Face Covering has two (2) or more layers. A Face Covering may be factory-made, sewn by hand, or can be improvised from household items such as scarfs, bandanas t-shirts, sweatshirts, or towels.
Cooper’s order treats “face coverings” — anything covering your nose and mouth, even a hand towel — for the “general public,” while specifying they are “not intended for use by healthcare providers.” Cooper’s order states “N95 respirators are not recommended for the general public.” Cooper’s order reserves N95 respirators “for healthcare providers and other medical first responders in a health care setting” and surgical masks for “all workers in long-term care facilities.”
In short, this is not a study to back Cooper’s order. If Cooper used it to make recommendations to people to adopt masks voluntarily and which types to seek out voluntarily, that would be different. But to justify use of extraordinary emergency power backed by police enforcement, even inside your own home? Absolutely not.
Hatzius et al.
The other study Cooper references is said to have “found that increasing universal masking by 15% could prevent the need for lockdowns and reduce associated losses of up to $1 trillion nationally or about 5% of gross domestic product.” Again, Cooper provides a misleading representation.
Hatzius et al. argue for a national mask mandate, which they said “could raise the percentage of people who wear masks by 15 pp and cut the daily growth rate of confirmed cases by 1.0 pp to 0.6%.” Those figures they base on Lyu and Wehby, a study (see above) whose findings had already been rendered moot by rapidly rising cases, and especially more so now. Their GDP estimates come from calculations based on their estimated benefits built off Lyu and Wehby.
Put flatly: Hatzius is hardly a study to justify weaponizing a statewide mask order five months after first leveling it on the stated rationale that “in North Carolina in recent weeks, COVID-19 daily case counts have been at their highest point to-date since the onset of the pandemic.”
Furthermore, in announcing this order Cooper specifically threatened returning to lockdowns: “We don’t want to go backward, but we will if it’s necessary. The next 7 to 14 days will tell us whether we’re stemming the tide or whether we need to ratchet it up even more.” But Hatzius et al. argue that “a face mask mandate could potentially substitute for lockdowns that would otherwise subtract nearly 5% from GDP.”
Cooper cannot simultaneously credit the mask mandate for saving 5% of GDP based on this research and then threaten to take actions, for a second time, that this research said would subtract 5% from GDP.
Two weeks ago, I asked if Cooper’s orders were — along with COVID-19 — having deadly health effects on North Carolinians. A growing number of experts worldwide have been warning of dangerous, short-term and long-term deadly consequences of government lockdowns, shutdowns, and other restrictions in trying to address COVID-19.
Using NC deaths data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and subtracting out COVID-19 deaths, I discovered that North Carolina was experiencing above-average deaths and even excess deaths outside of COVID.
Worse, I found that the state Department of Health and Human Services is extremely delinquent in reporting data to the CDC — two months behind other states. DHHS had partially reported only through August 29. Other states were updated through October 24.
Here’s the threat, as I wrote:
If Cooper’s highly restrictive executive orders are once again exacerbating excess deaths in North Carolina while trying to fight COVID-19, his administration might not know about this grim failure for another two and a half months. Presumably they could take action now to stop it if they knew. But how many North Carolinians are suffering needlessly now in the meantime?
As of today, other states’ death data are current through November 7. North Carolina’s is still stuck on August 29. This is Thanksgiving weekend. The Cooper administration has only partially reported deaths data not even up to Labor Day. It’s incredibly shameful.
The terrible implication is that Cooper continues to tighten restrictions and threaten to “ratchet it up” even more, all the way to lockdown again, oblivious or indifferent to this other, potentially greater threat to people’s lives.