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Editorial: Science, personal choice must work together

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Virus Outbreak Massachusetts

People wear face masks to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 as they wait in line to be tested for the virus outside the Bowdoin Street Health Center in Boston.

‘I’m just over it.”

It’s a commonly heard, and understandable, complaint about policy decisions around COVID-19.

As we close in on our second full year of living with this virus, frustration is rising with the seemingly ever-changing information about how to deal with it. Vaccinations and boosters work, except when they don’t. Quarantine for 10 days, or five. Wear this mask, not that mask.

Unfortunately, COVID isn’t done with us, and two camps have emerged that control the way we talk about how to move forward.

One says to “follow the science,” which gets ridiculed by those who point to the above-mentioned apparent contradictions in policy as evidence that scientists don’t know what to do, either.

The other is a moral position that says we each must exercise our “personal freedom.” Take whatever risk you want to take. Get the vaccine or don’t, it’s really up to you.

The two sides shout at one another, but neither ever really hears.

It may help to know that scientists appear to be as frustrated as us nonscientists with the polarization. Nason Maani of Boston University expressed this well last year in an article for Scientific American. “An understanding of … science,” he writes, “needs to be at the heart of any effort to contain a pandemic.” However, he continues, knowing science is no substitute for the moral and political decision-making that flows from the information science is giving us.

We can’t decouple personal freedom or policymaking from science. Embracing that truth is key to helping us all live together with this new, admittedly frustrating, reality of a pandemic that appears to be here to stay for a while.

To keep the two ideas in tension requires a better public understanding of what science is, and what it can and can’t do for us.

Lynn Lewis, Ph.D., has a better feel than most for using science in making policy. She’s professor and chair of biological sciences at the University of Mary Washington, and she’s involved with advising school leaders on the policies UMW should follow on the pandemic.

“Science is not static,” she says. “There are always questions, and things are never known beyond a shadow of a doubt.”

So when guidelines switch from vaccinated people don’t need a mask to you must mask regardless of vaccination status, it’s because the information we have has shifted. “It’s not that you’re getting conflicting information,” she says, “it’s that things on the ground have changed.”

And then there’s the fact that in science, there’s almost always more that we don’t know than we do know. For example: What other health problems might people with COVID-19 face down the road? If you catch one strain of the virus, are you immune from another? Right now, there are no definitive answers.

The policies, decisions and personal choices we make during this time must deal with both the known and the unknown. It doesn’t take long for the decision-making to get complicated. One may choose not to vaccinate or mask, but how do we balance that personal choice with the collective good?

Is it OK to permit unvaccinated, unmasked people into public settings where immunocompromised people are going to be? Is it ethical to end mask mandates in schools at a time when a new variant that spreads quicker and affects children is raging? These are just two of many choices we are facing now.

Let’s insist that those making these decisions begin with what we do know from science about COVID-19. Masks protect you from breathing in or breathing out the virus onto others—not perfectly, but to a very high degree. Vaccines are effective in helping people survive infection with minimal sickness. If you’re sick, stay home so you won’t infect others.

How we work with that information demands a careful weighing of a near countless range of beliefs and needs.

Science can’t solve this problem for us. But neither can we make solid moral, and public policy, decisions without it.

There’s no getting over that.

— The (Fredericksburg) Free Lance-Star

— The (Fredericksburg) Free Lance-Star

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