COVID-19 and the Fear-Mongering Five-Percenters | Opinion

America is winning the battle against COVID-19. But you wouldn't know it by listening to our politicians and public health authorities.

President Joe Biden has said he will still wear a mask after vaccination—even when outside or gathering indoors with other vaccinated individuals—calling it a "patriotic responsibility." Days earlier, Biden's chief medical adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci, insisted that children should still wear masks while playing outside, even though outdoor transmission is virtually impossible.

They're hardly the only doomsayers. Vaccines are rolling out quickly and are close to 100 percent effective at preventing hospitalizations and deaths. A growing body of real-world evidence suggests that the vaccines are effective at stopping even asymptomatic transmission. And yet most media outlets and public health officials from the CDC, NIH and elsewhere seem more interested in keeping us scared than in sharing the good news.

Put another way, the technocrats are still fixated on the 5 percent residual risk of exposure and transmission, rather than the 95 percent reduction in risk we are achieving through vaccination.

The numbers support this optimistic "95 percent perspective." The number of new confirmed COVID cases has declined by 75 percent since the peak in January. Deaths and hospitalizations have declined by 80 percent. And the reproduction rate—the average number of new infections caused by one person—has fallen below one. That means transmission is moving toward zero.

It's true that we may never get all the way to zero. But we don't have to. Expecting zero transmission is both unrealistic and unnecessary. We accept all manner of risks as the price of going about our daily lives. The flu kills tens of thousands of Americans each year. Car accidents claim about 40,000 lives annually. But most people don't shun social contact each flu season or refuse to drive.

Of course, some of us are more risk-averse than others—and that's okay. We all deserve the right to make our own choices and take our own chances.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert testifies before a House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis hearing on April 15, 2021 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee is hearing testimony on “The role of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Research Addressing COVID-19.” Susan Walsh-Pool/Getty Images

But public officials' response to the pandemic distorts the real risks. The "5 percent perspective" can always find a threat for which restricting commerce, education and travel is justified.

For example, it's been obvious for over a year that hand sanitizer and masks greatly reduce COVID-19 transmission. But the 5 percenters demanded strict lockdowns, warning that people couldn't be trusted to keep their hands clean or wear masks properly. The vast majority of new cases are less severe. But the 5 percenters—a group that included many governors—imposed strict lockdowns, warning that people couldn't be trusted to keep their hands clean or wear masks properly.

Then we were warned that continued restrictions were necessary—because the vaccines wouldn't protect us from the U.K. and Brazilian variants of coronavirus. But then we learned that the COVID vaccines are effective against all strains—at least effective enough to reduce reproduction rates below one—and keep people out of the hospital.

The differences between the "95 percent" and "5 percent" perspectives are not really about science. Doctors and public health authorities can tell us what the risks are. But it's not their job—or their place—to determine individuals' risk calculus.

The 5 percenters seek out reasons to keep us uncertain and fearful. The 95 percent perspective interprets shifting information and new questions as an opportunity to move forward cautiously, but without panic.

Put another way, the 95 percent perspective trusts people to choose wisely if given the information to do so. The 5 percent group believes that people are too irresponsible to make their own decisions.

Unfortunately, the 5 percenters' views seem to predominate in positions of authority. If we do not return to a healthier perception of risk—and our leaders continue to perpetuate fear instead of highlighting progress—it'll hold back our economy and our society for years to come.

Robert Goldberg is vice president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.