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Even Six Feet Isn't Covid Safe. New CDC Guidelines to Reopen Schools Could be Dangerous

A new study says even six feet of separation is dangerous if schools reopen without updated ventilation systems. It adds children, where schools are open, can spread Covid into the community. Phillip Alvelda and Thomas Ferguson of INET join Paul Jay on theAnalysis.news

Paul Jay

Hi, I’m Paul Jay. Welcome to the Analysis News. Please don’t forget there’s a donate button at the top of the web page. If you’re watching on YouTube, there’s a subscribe button somewhere there and be back in a second.

There’s been a tremendous pressure put on teachers across the United States, Canada and most of the world to return to in-school teaching.  Right-wing media in the United States has been unrelenting in their attacks on teachers unions, blaming them for unnecessarily risking negative psychological effects on children caused by continued school closures and the economic consequences of parents not returning to work. The Biden administration has joined the pressure campaign, calling for 100 percent of all schools to be reopened by this fall.

New guidelines from the CDC state that schools can return to more or less pre-Covid distancing between desks, saying that three feet is as safe as six feet.

Of course, the real question is, is six feet safe? CBS News reports the nation’s largest teachers union sent a two page letter to the Biden administration on Tuesday questioning the decision to reduce the recommended social distancing in schools to three feet between students.

Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.7 million member American Federation of Teachers, in her letter cited the study by the Institute for New Economic Thinking that stated “Contrary to the notion that even 3 feet of distancing is sufficient protection, and six feet is overkill, the critical safety issue is that students are all uniformly at risk in poorly ventilated rooms, no matter where they are or how they distance. With one infected person in an enclosed and poorly ventilated room, the coronavirus permeates the entire space, putting everyone inside at similar risk regardless of where they sit. The key corrective abatement measure necessary is wholesale improvement and ventilation, filtering, and HVAC systems. Nothing whatsoever in any of the cited studies supports safely moving students closer together, the report concludes. Reopening most schools now, before most schools have robust protective measures and don’t yet have broad ability or finances to conduct frequent surveillance testing to prevent asymptomatic spreaders of the latest, more dangerous coronavirus variants from infecting their community, is thus very unwise.”

Now joining us are two of the three authors of the study, Dr. Phillip Alvelda, who is the CEO and chairman of Brain Works Foundry Inc, a U.S. based developer of A.I. enhanced health care technologies and services. Prior to Brain Works, Dr. Albelda was a program manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Biological Technologies Office, where he developed and ran national scale R&D programs and technologies. And Thomas Ferguson joins us.

He is the Institute for New Economic Thinking’s director of research projects and a member of its advisory board. He’s a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

Not able to join us is the third author, Dr Deepti Gurdasani, who did much of the research for the study and is a clinical epidemiologist and statistical geneticist and senior lecturer at the William Harvey Research Institute in London, and we hope to get her on sometime in the future.

All right. Let’s start with the latest news, the CDC new guidance. Phillip, your paper says the new guidelines from the CDC on reopening schools are based on outdated science and could spark a new upsurge of the epidemic if you’re right.

How does the CDC get this so wrong and how what exactly did they do that was so wrong?

Phillip Alvelda

Yes, I think it’s important to understand that from the outset, this pandemic has been a completely novel experience for the scientific community at large, and when we began taking data on what was happening with the coronavirus a year ago, it really was a complete and utter search in the wilderness, in the dark, where we really didn’t even have a clear idea of where to look, how to look, what data should be taken, we had a very, very sparse, faulty view of what was happening with the coronavirus.

And at the time, the CDC was struggling to interpret vast arrays of data from different countries, and there were vast political pressures about what they should say and shouldn’t say that. We can talk about if we decide to get into the political elements,  but I think most importantly, the critical failure was for our country at large, the CDC in particular, to really carefully listen to the international scientists who were preceding us in the course of the virus.

Scientists in Wuhan knew very early on that the studies were showing a high likelihood of airborne transmission when the Diamond Princess passengers were infected with seemingly no way that they should have been infected in their isolated cabins, there was a lot of discussion that very likely the transmission was through the ducts of the ship. Had to be airborne. Then finally the kind of the nail in the coffin of the international groups on the Asian side was the the case in Korea of the woman in the church who, by singing and attending church services, infected some 2000 people through the course of a day and day and a half of just being in and around the church where the vast majority of them were nowhere near close enough to her to be within any kind of six foot radius.

And at that point, the Korean authorities, the public health officials determined, yes, it was airborne, and in fact, there was a great deal of supporting evidence to show that when you talk and eat and sing in particular, as they were in the church, that you actually generate more airborne virus carrying particles. So this was in March of last year, more than a year ago. Since then, we have assembled a group of technical experts that we’ve been working with over the whole period.

And one of the kind of technical leaders of our group, Kim Prather, who’s a specialist in aerosol chemistry at Scripps in San Diego, did some groundbreaking work a little a little less than a year ago now that definitively showed that the virus particles were carried in small sized sub micron particles. That sized particle behaves more or less like cigarette smoke.

OK, and she showed that definitively that the infectious doses could be carried in those particles and in fact, survived the trip through the air and in fact, would stay in the air for prolonged periods. And the smoke analogy really is a quite a good one. So I think that the science was there as of a year ago, but I want to highlight that science is a process that we’re used to witnessing over decades.

The history of science is that there’s a general body of knowledge that recognizes what seems to be true, and then someone comes up with a new tool or an instrument or approach and says, hey, using my new tool, I think I’ve discovered something new. And what do you think

Then there’s usually like a decade long process of verification,  validation, and repeating the experiment and where you slowly build scientific consensus around some new information, but in this coronavirus, it’s growing exponentially. We don’t have the time. So that whole process has had to be accelerated faster than the scientific community has ever operated before. So I think that part of what you’re seeing really is not necessarily strictly malfeasance. It’s just the threshes and the throes of science at work, but going faster than it’s ever gone before.

Now people with extreme attention are kind of looking at all the sausage making in the factory to see the fact that not everyone agrees. I think that the danger in these types of situations is when you have politicians who cannot pick out who are the real innovators, who are the polymaths that are putting together all of the disparate clues from the different disciplines, it’s very hard to decide who to listen to.

Paul Jay

Given that we’re sort of into this territory about why and some of the political pressures, let’s do that and then we’ll dig more into the report, Tom, this idea that there’s evidence that this was airborne primarily as Phillip says, it’s been around for like almost a year.

Thomas Ferguson

It took the World Health Organization, I don’t know, almost a year to actually conclude that this was airborne. I mean, is it really that the fact that once you acknowledge it’s airborne, it has enormous economic consequences, you can’t just clean some surfaces and you have to really think about closing down parts of the economy? And did they ignore the science because of those pressures for quite some time?

Well, a question there was they. I think one needs to go back and just to add a point to the obviously valid point that Phillip just made, which is the asymptomatic character of people weren’t used to figuring out there could be lots of people walking around who were, in fact, sick and who gave no indication of that, along with the airborne question. I think that really did throw people for a loop and it took folks a rather long time to sort of come to grips with that.

And that, in effect, you had zombies who didn’t look like zombies. They weren’t dripping blood around their teeth and things like that. That really is something of a problem. But OK, my take on this might be all right. First, if you go back and read Bob Woodward’s book on Trump, you can see that Trump knows fairly early on this thing might be airborne, and then I think it was Matt Pottinger of the National Security Council rep for China, the guy dealing with China.

He gave an interview right after he left the administration saying, well, he knew from his Chinese contacts this thing was pretty well airborne real fas,  and they were apparently actually wearing mask in that part of the National Security Council, if not everywhere else there, and i have heard guys and I know, Phillip, has too who have been around in various investigations,and some people knew even in late January that this probably was airborne..

So there’s a lot of indicationsthere, but there is this problem of how do you not rush to judgment and the consensus point that Phillip makes.

But it’s perfectly obvious, I think, that the political pressures early on, the problem with the airborne character of this was then you needed masks and so [inaudible] a lot of people who should have known better. This is not a case of politicians versus scientists. They’re saying, well, you don’t really need masks, they won’t help, and this thing was being repeated. Now, when you look around, this led to lots of conflicts inside hospitals because I mean, I know of cases myself.

I’ve talked to people on this. You had, for instance,  MD’s who in many cases were belonging to international groups. They were just on the Internet and they knew pretty well pretty fast that they’d better get masks and then they get fired from their hospital as actually happened not to one, but to several people I know, and there were a couple cases of nurses being sent home and stuff like that. And so, yeah, this goes very quickly to lots of fairly politically sensitive things.

And so I do think that the air airborne problem has been badly dealt with by both not only OSHA, the Occupational Safety and health agency there, but also by the CDC. And for sure, yeah, the politics of this were where it was going to have to change very quickly  almost immediately. There are problems in the meatpacking industry because people were really dropping an enormous number. I mean, you had cases of more more than one hundred at a time, in some instances over a relatively short period.

So the question is, what are you going to do? And there were some noises about, well, we got to do better. I mean, it turned out later that the, as you probably know, Paul in fact Phillip may have been the person who pointed out to me first, actually, some of the supervisors in some of the meatpacking plants were making bets on who dropped first. This was something of a problem. It’s a real problem.

So, yeah, I think at every point on this, the question of politics and economics has entered. The airborn thing is peculiarly sensitive because you’ve got to really redesign stuff. You might be able to do it in some cases with relatively cheap filters and things like that. In other cases, , you’ve got buildings with windows that won’t open no matter what you do. And it’s not going to be as bad as some places where they find out the ventilation systems don’t work for 20 years correctly.

I know because I lived in an institution like that where it turns out the emissions from the trucking stuff was actually going straight, that the truck exhaust was going straight into the ventilation system in the university. How about that sports fans? It’s a real Mel Allen moment. Well, anyway, so, yeah, this is supersensitive stuff, and it has been so everywhere, pretty much in the planet, though the U.S. strikes me over the longer run as sort of peculiarly refractory to anybody doing much about it.

Now, the CDC is still kind of funny on the airborn, but they finally got around to formally acknowledging it an amazingly short period ago. Just look closely. Even under Biden, who’s done much better on most of this stuff, the OSHA and the other agencies, they’re a little slow on the question of how do we restructure this? And we’ve got money to redo ventilation while not telling anybody, you really got to do it except in fine print. So dense, nobody can read it. It’s not a good situation.

Paul Jay

Right, so let’s go dig in to the report because the CDC is saying three feet is as safe as six feet, and in your report, Phillip, you’re essentially saying, well, maybe they’re right, but that isn’t the point. The point is six feet isn’t safe because it’s all about the air in the room, and that seems so obvious once you say it and once it’s acknowledged and now it is. It’s acknowledged this is airborne and it’s like cigarette smoke. So I don’t understand how does the CDC come up with a three feet and not talk about get your ventilation systems working?

Phillip Alvelda

I think they’re under a tremendous amount of pressure politically to support the Biden initiative in opening the schools as rapidly as they can. Don’t get me wrong, I have two school age children, one freshman in college and another a sophomore in high school that are here in my house doing mostly remote learning, but, we’re in an affluent suburb with good schools, and we happen to be on the privileged side of that equation whereas, most of the urban school districts, they’re either closed and don’t have a good remote learning option or they’ve been forced to stay open, and faculty, student, and parents are ending up in the hospital. So there’s really tremendous consequence to staying closed and having the schools closed for in-person learning.

So I’m not overlooking that. That’s a tremendous, tremendous burden, but to lose a parent or to lose a teacher for want of a couple of months of rushed preparations at the end of the school year doesn’t seem to be a great tradeoff to me, and I think that when you look at the consequence of having the schools open, what does it mean for a CDC that for the last year has had several credibility crises to lose even more credibility by replacing the current guidance, which is droplets and wipe downs and plexiglass and handwashing, which we now know is no longer the primary mode of transmission, in fact, never was.

And you need to replace all of those measures or augment them at a much higher priority with the lead issue is that you’ve got to filter the air and it’s got to be fresh air so that you can preserved the safety in the room, and so that’s that’s yet another credibility crisis. On top of the masks on top of the asymptomatic carriers, now now the third one, the ventilation. So I think that it’s important for the CDC to have national credibility so that people will listen to them and respond properly in public health crises. So it’s  tough, tough situation.

Paul Jay

All right, so just to be clear about what you’re saying, if schools don’t fix the ventilation, which mostly means if they’re not given the time and the financing to fix the ventilation, because I’m sure, they would all like to they shouldn’t reopen it, just as straightforward as that.

Phillip Alvelda

I believe so, yes, or they should find some way to reopen in venues where there’s more ventilation.

Paul Jay

Is open windows enough?

Phillip Alvelda

Open windows can be an assistance, but there are easy ways to measure. If you have a tiny CO2 detector, I don’t have one here with me at the moment, but a tiny CO2 detector can measure how much of the air in the room has been exhaled by someone else, and that’s a good metric for how rapidly you’re evacuating the breathed aerosols from the room.

Paul Jay

Hang on, Phillip, hang on. I’ve been listening to this Covid coverage, like with a lot of focus for a year. Unless I’m dumb, I’ve never heard anyone say what you just said about a CO2 detector. I mean, it seems so obvious and simple that every school classroom could have.

Phillip Alvelda

Yeah. Or you just need one per school and walk around the rooms during the day and just look at the measurements. It’s a relatively straightforward thing to do and it automatically accounts for how many people are in the room and how likely are they to exhale  how quickly is the room being evacuated. It’s not the only solution.

But that’s a cheap, simple, easy way to evaluate how you’re doing. If you can open up a few windows, set up a box fan or two, you can clear out a room in somewhere between six and 12 minutes.

So that’s a huge boon, and it will do more than any of the wash downs or the plexiglass would do inside the enclosed spaces.

Paul Jay

OK, there’s another, I think, really important thing that jumps out in your report that I haven’t really seen clearly elsewhere. Maybe it is, but anyway, Tom, we’ve been told by many authorities, including where I am in Ontario, but it’s true everywhere, really, that it’s safer for kids to be in school than in the community because most of the transmission goes from the community into the schools and not the other way around, but your study says, and I’m quoting, that the “increases in prevalence of infection among school-age groups preceded rise of infection in other age groups.This has a vital implication. The new studies suggest that infections among children at school do not just reflect infection rates in the community. Rather, they drive increases in infection within the community through spreading from schools into homes, and from there to the broader community.”

OK, so Tom, this rather startling information because the press, the media is full of this idea. Get your kids into school because they’ll actually be safer there, and so will the community be safer.

Thomas Ferguson

Paul, this goes back to that point about the symptomatic transmission of this stuff that lots of people had it and didn’t know they had it, and so when people go into schools on the first wave of studies to find out who’s sick and who’s not, they only usually test the people who are obviously sick, and so they don’t realize that there are all these pupils sitting there walking around and then going home who are in fact, they may be spreading it right there in the classroom.

Almost certainly are, but they don’t pick that up, and then only if you start testing everybody in the place or a real random samples that you’ve got impossibly large populations of school than there are in the U.S.. People haven’t done it much, but they did do it in Britain. Our colleague Deepti was very much involved in those studies. Then you find out real fast that the infection rate is much higher than you think. And that second wave of studies, in other words, wipes out the conclusions of the first. Those points are not taken in most of the stuff that I’ve seen recycled in the last few weeks, especially one is tempted to say in The Wall Street Journal, but not alone, where they just keep talking about past experiences. 

It’s not too reassuring to hear school administrators saying, well, of course, our own experience on this, what are these guys doing that, we know this was a point that actually it’s very useful to make, not just on ventilation, but you really need to do serious testing regimes.

You need to do them not only in schools, but every place else, and this one where I fault not just the Trump administration or, you almost never go wrong if you fault them on a Covid thing, but the Biden people have not really taken hold of this either. I mean, they’re not really. They have now given money to the schools and the schools can use that money for testing, and indeed, there was, I think, another little appropriation that went through specifically on testing, but we have enormous problems with just trying to figure out who’s really sick, it’s not obvious a lot of the time.

You’ve got a lot of people who just don’t show it, and so a school administrator says, well, our experience is they don’t get sick with this or that. I saw that in a Michigan thing trying to say it was only folks of the athletics. I don’t believe it. They were transmitting in the classes. I’d like to see some real evidence.

Phillip Alvelda

We do have some of that evidence now. Right. We can we can look at some of the breakdowns of infection by age and hospitalizations by age, and in this new way, we can actually see the younger grades trending upwards when the schools are open trending down.

Thomas Ferguson

Yeah, that would be OK.

Phillip Alvelda

It’s been repeated in Michigan, in Canada, in Germany, Scotland. So this not a unitary result in one spot.

This something that’s being repeated over and over.  I think part of the challenge early on was that there is a curious dependance on age. Where the younger you are, the less likely you are to show symptoms, but you can still have the disease and you can still be conveying it very, very heavily.

In fact, there were some children that showed no symptom whatsoever, and yet we’re generating higher viral loads than even ICU patients than were adults.

So when you have this situation where the majority of children who are infected are not obviously so, and they become the drivers of the pandemic.

This was one of the conclusions of the UK study that triggered a flood of other studies internationally, which said quite unequivocally that having the schools open and the children, the asymptomatic children in particular, they were the primary driver of the pandemic, and so I think that there’s a couple of points. One, of course, is the risk to the children, which I think has been understated. There’s been a focus on just will they die or not?

Risk of death, admittedly very low for children, but it turns out that there are many, many side effects even when you’re asymptomatic, and so the side effects that can accrue include heart involvement, long term lung impairment, cognitive impairment that last month’s, neurological disorders.

So you hear about long Covid, but much of this that’s happening to the children is not even being attributed to Covid because they were never tested for Covid.

They were never diagnosed as having Covid, and some of those side effects now are being misattributed to other conditions. So this issue of public health is a public health issue for the children. Personally, it’s a real one that we haven’t really fully quantified.

So we’re putting the children at risk in an experiment. What percentage of them will suffer these long term consequences? We don’t know exactly. We think it’s about eight percent maybe, but that’s a lot of kids at risk, and besides the individual risk to the kids, you’ve got the fact that the continuing school is now definitively a driver of the pandemic with this new strain. If you look at the UK, for example, they were not able to halt the exponential growth of the new B.117 variant until they shut the schools.

They had closed everything else, tried to keep the schools open. That was not enough to contain the new, more infectious strain. They had to shut the schools.

Paul Jay

Yeah, just this one thing, I have two eight year olds and I got vaccinated and so did my wife, so we figured, OK, the schools leaving the windows open and such, it’s safe to put the kids in, but in Ontario, where we are now, we were living in the U.S. until recently.

The senior health doctor said there’s not much point testing. By the time you get the results, it’s too late to do much with it anyway. So all they’re really testing here is if someone actually is found to be positive, then they start testing. In fact, in our school, someone was just found positive. So today our kids are getting tested, but there’s no testing outside of an actual outbreak.

Phillip Alvelda

Well, that’s a critical opportunity, I would say, and the Biden administration has understood this and they are starting to put money behind it, but it’s just going to take a little while to spool up the capability so the critical issue that I think you nicely highlighted was the turnaround time of the test. When someone can be infected on one day and reach peak infectiousness in two and a half to three days, that tells you that even if I tested on Monday, by Thursday, that test no longer has protective value, and to really prevent that infected person from spreading the coronavirus to other people in the schools, you need a faster turnaround service to pull them out of the community before they infect others. So the key is not just testing, but fast testing and doing it regularly, at least twice a week. So that has an economic implication. Which schools can afford it. How cheap is the test? How quickly can the laboratory test services turn these things around?

Paul Jay

Hey, Tom, so tell me on this testing issue, I’m doing this to my face here because I’m just thinking of my kids in school right now. I read a story and my memory on the actual numbers may be a bit wrong, but there was a city, a small city in China, small meaning like 12 million, and they apparently tested like the whole city in three weeks or something like that. I don’t understand why isn’t there mass testing in North America with a quick turnaround? What’s stopping it?

Thomas Ferguson

Well, the short blunt story is I think the political will wasn’t there to do it early on. Now, technologically, it would have been tough, but Phillip can talk very nicely about this since he’s been involved with testing in a big way. Now it’s around, but what you’ve got, you’ve got school systems that have in many cases, preexisting contracts with clunky old test stuff, and they don’t have much of a budget for it. They didn’t until the new Biden aid bill passed and they’re sort of sitting around locked in with a bunch of old contracts.

Well, I would like to interject one other point, though, which is I cannot fathom why the administration has not moved to more universally distribute mass. I still don’t understand why the U.S. post office can’t give everybody in the country three or four masks that are right. I understand that would take some time to get people didn’t have it and nobody wanted to admit that was early on. That was plainly the main reason why folks were sort of, in effect, covering up the aerosol form of transmission here, but we’re well past that now, and it is said and I think this probably true that the Chinese are certainly exporting their KN95 masks again.

There’s been plenty of time to ramp up production in the United States and it has been ramped up. I mean 3m and these other companies have done it, but it’s just when you go out on the Internet and try to buy stuff, it’s like you think you’re in the Grand Bazaar and you’re shopping for clothes and you don’t know what you can buy.

Is this really going to fit you, et cetera, et cetera? And I do not understand why anybody and nobody in the United States has really tried to systematize that better. Now I just look around at my neighbors and so on. I can see everybody doing everything from perfectly reasonable masks, especially in the affluent areas to stop the, I would regard it as something out of Pirates of the Caribbean or something instead, I think this still going to be a problem in schools.

 I don’t think this going to get solved by any. It is crazy to have it solved individually by most of the authorities in the hands of the states.

Phillip Alvelda

There was in fact a plan last March or April to mail every American a good quality KN or N95 mask, and the Trump administration killed it before before the plane could get off the ground. 

Paul Jay

Now listen, it is fully legitimate to blame the Trump administration. As Tom said, you can’t go wrong because they completely fucked this one up, but there have been predictions of airborne pandemics for years. What is the movie? Contagion is an airborne pandemic. I mean, it’s like you’re watching a news report from today. There was so many advice from epidemiologists to get ready for this, and the Obama administration had a group working on this, and still the supply chain on masks was completely lacking. I don’t get that.

Phillip Alvelda

I think in that case, I was part of the biological technologies office that put many of those plans and prediction and warning systems in place in China. So we had that system up and running, during the Obama administration, but I think something that’s not getting a lot of press these days is just the general problem of supply chain risk and resilience to things like a pandemic in the United States where, we have a broad health care system that has offshored most of the production of goods, whether it’s drugs, masks, PPE, pretty much every aspect of the medical supply value chain, and what we discovered is that when there’s a global pandemic, a country will supply itself before everyone else, and so, of course, in the heat of last spring, those value chains broke and we did not have any local production capacity in the United States to offer us our own resilience and protection when China stopped shipping the goods. To China’s credit, they isolated the virus very early.

They suppressed it within a couple of months, and they reopened their manufacturing in the bulk of the country and began shipping masks by mid-year. Then, of course, there’s political challenges to accepting masks from China and should we do it or not. So those all were conversations that were happening, but the critical issue was this profit driven health care system, so attentive to their margins, pushed the production of critical supplies offshore where we did not have control or access.

 I think that this requires some really deep thought for a number of reasons, social justice reasons and access to health care with money being one of them, but, of course, local supply chains and local manufacturing being a critical national resource that we need to rethink, and right now, to my knowledge, I don’t see too many of the hospital chains rejiggering their pharmaceutical supply chains or their supply chains for some of these materials beyond a rather modest ramp up from the local production.

So I think that there’s a good cause for rethinking national scale, use of our sovereign wealth to improve our resilience.

Paul Jay

In Canada we went even a step further, which we allowed the labs that could make vaccines to close down and completely rely on offshore, mostly European sources of vaccine.

So we’re way behind in having vaccinations in Canada, and now the EU just said they’re going to have I think a six week hold on exporting vaccines to anywhere else. So in Canada all the Canadian plans are all now screwed up.

Phillip Alvelda

Supply chain nationalism, right?

Paul Jay

Yeah. Go ahead, Tom.

Thomas Ferguson

Well, a couple of issues here. One is, yes, the supply chain issue is gigantic. It’s clear, and that’s if you’re looking for why can’t you get an American made mask or just get any mask in April of last year?

Go right there. That’s right, but there is also the broader question of public spending on health care and austerity in general. I mean, in the U.S. after the Iraq war was quite nervous about biological terrorism, and for a while they built stuff up. All that went down by the board,  and now in a place like the U.K., it went down largely on, as far as I can tell, by a public government initiative.

The Cameron administration government came in and cut spending like crazy like that. In the U.S. case, the private character of the health care system, and in particular when private equity firms went in and started swallowing up hospital chains because that’s like putting, if you like profit motives on steroids and it’s not an accident. I think that the very first doctor fired in the United States for complaining that he and his staff did not have proper protection, was working at a chain owned by private equity folks.

Now, that brings us to the question, what else went wrong? This not the same thing as a supply chain story. It’s the Occupational Health and Safety question, OSHA in the case of one doctor I knew. The lady got fired. She was seeing patients, and she knew early on that she needed masks and she needed them and her patients needed them. So the hospital she was working at fired her.

She appealed, claiming trying to use an OSHA procedure and the local and regional folks signed with her. The National OSHA said no. They just said, look, you’re a part time worker. She was formally not on the staff, and tough. I mean, this is regulatory problems and bluntly labor relations that are really at the heart of stuff. It’s clear that the U.S. whistleblowing laws are too weak. It’s clear. OSHA is still behind the curve, though, finally Biden told them they had to issue some kind of emergency standard and I think they just did something the other day, but OSHA has been very slow to move, and OSHA, of course, does not regulate public schools at all. It could presumably issue something on private but the public ones. You’re going to have to rely, I guess, probably on the state authorities there. We have a serious occupational health and safety issue.

It’s quite general and the supply. I agree completely with everything Phillip said about the supply chain issue and the, if you like, the globalization of production to the cheapest possible place. Absolutely true. There is still a problem of you can fire somebody for saying that they need a mask. Well, you’re way, way beyond the pillars of Hercules in sensible policy. I mean, you’re somewhere on cloud.

Paul Jay

I thought it was interesting in the CBS report and several other reports about your paper.

They quote from the about section of the INET website, and you’re a group that thinks there’s a problem with, quote, free market fundamentalism, and I’m not sure if CBS and the others threw that in to somehow I don’t know if they thought it discredited it. I thought it credited it, but I don’t know what they thought.

I mean, Phillip sort of plays off what Tom was just saying. There’s never been a better example of the failure of free market fundamentalism than the Covid crisis.

Phillip Alvelda

Yeah, and  I think that one of the kind of misconceptions we tried to address in our previous paper on saving the economy by saving people first, is that I think there was a false dichotomy set up very early on that you either had to choose to help the economy and pay money and invest in the economy, or you had to choose to instead spend that money in things like abatement measures and testing and so on.

So it was really framed as a zero sum game. Either we save the economy or we save people. So let’s focus on the economy, of course, was the Trump mantra, and we saw evidence of that directly. I mean, I’ll give you without naming specific companie. Our company, we developed the technology to do fast rapid testing with fast turnaround times at very, very low cost so that you could find these asymptomatic people.

And we set out to sell it to enterprise, and we got very few takers, and I’m talking about conversations with hundreds of companies, hundreds of companies, and I would say at least 60 to 70 percent of them had an answer, something of the flavor that, well, we’re critical, essential services. The government has essentially given us a pass and we’re not going to spend the time or money or effort to test for asymptomatic if the government doesn’t force us to.

Paul Jay

Tom, last word?

Thomas Ferguson

Well, simply, I think particularly in recent months, there’s been a kind of breakdown of the normal processes of sort of the way not only experts in politics interact, but how that goes straight into public policy. Even on the progressive Democratic side. I mean, this question of the schools properly, it should have been raised, frankly, not by us, but by the leaders, at least of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, and it should have been much faster earlier there, but, boy, when I tried to interest folks in this, although I succeeded on the OSHA question. OSHA was left out of the first Biden Covid task force, people did move when I sort of made some noises about this, but since then, nobody’s been interested in this stuff, and you’re not going to be able to protect people unless you actually try to protect them, and that means there’s going to have to be sort of some very much more direct political pressures, I think, on OSHA and the CDC to sort of pay attention better, faster to the facts of the case. It’s bothered me.

Paul Jay

Well, I know what I got to do. I got to go get myself a CO2 detector and get down to the school.

Phillip Alvelda

ARANET4, a tiny little device, bluetooth, takes history, logs everything. Great little unit

Paul Jay

So a quick solution would be get that thing, get some fans to blow the fresh air, just don’t open the windows and measure and see if it’s circulating the air?

Phillip Alvelda

You’ll be able to see. You’ll see as your just in your car on the way to school and then CO2 goes up, you crack the window, it’ll come down, it’ll track through the classes. When the kids are between classes and outside the CO2 level drops. You get a beautiful view of the whole day and the risk for the whole experience.

Paul Jay

What you’re really saying is until the schools actually get it right systemically, they shouldn’t even be open.

Phillip Alvelda

I think that’s a really important message. If I was to characterize what I think people need to pay attention to. It’s number one, if you’re a city or government official, you need to be looking at the cases of exponential growth in your community and acting quickly based on that data.

If you see exponential growth, you have to act fast. If you delay, you’ll suffer more serious consequences, and if you delay long enough, a lockdown is inevitable. For the schools and the guidance coming from agencies like the CDC, they need to be clear about what are the big impacts, the big impacts, not the minor ones. The big impacts, masks, ventilation, frequent testing. Those are the things that now we know make the largest difference. If you just did those three things, you could open a school safely.

Paul Jay

All right, gentlemen, thanks very much.

Phillip Alvelda

Thanks

Thomas Ferguson

Thanks, Paul.

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3 Comments

  1. Lots of money in ignoring science here. First, businesses, who own the money ballot box, don’t want to spend money to fix the problem. Second, building codes are not about to be updated until unions and civil engineering corporations, again too much money in established building codes.

    Canada is the largest builder of ERV/HRV equipment, so you’d think fixing the problem of air quality would be a great way to stimulate their business, but so many others would lose out that the money prefers to let it go. There is also, frankly a hidden perverse incentive that is in at least some minds, that killing off the elderly will save the government and those corporations with retirement funds a great deal of outlays.

  2. How did the CDC get it so wrong? In a word, politics. It’s all politics, everything is politicized. Any semblance of actual objectivity or technocratic governance is basically dead. The dems are technocratic when they want to be, but not consistent.

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