A half face dust mask and HEPA filter over white background.

Being an Adult in the Face of Omicron

By Jennifer S. Bard

To those who believe that the federal government is a benign force doing the best they can to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and keep us all safe, I have two words of advice: Grow up.

Neither the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), or Dr. Fauci should be anthropomorphized into a benevolent but perhaps out-of-touch parental figure. They are not.

As a matter of law, the government, in contrast to your parents, or school, or perhaps even your employer, does not have a fiduciary duty to protect your (or any individual’s) health and safety. As the Supreme Court said in Deshaney v. Winnebago Country Dept of Social Services, 489 U.S. 189 (1980) and again in Castlerock v. Gonzales, 545 U.S. 748 (2005), individuals do not have an enforceable right to government protection unless the state itself creates the danger. Their duty, if it exists, is to the public in general, which can encompass many factors beyond any one person’s health.

Just knowing that the government, duly elected or not, has no obligation to protect you or your family should be enough to look at its pandemic guidance as minimum, rather than maximum, standards. It should also encourage you to be proactive in taking precautions beyond those “recommended,” rather than seeing these minimal standards as unwarranted restrictions that can be negotiated down.

A more proactive, adult, perspective should open the door to allowing people to wear masks “more effective” than required or monitoring air quality and installing homemade fans with HEPA filters even though they are not “required” without either mocking such behavior as irrational fear.

And it should prompt us all to work harder to weigh what we hear in light of the motives of those who are talking.

For example, parents should consider if the CDC’s safety guidance for schools is shaped by pressure to reinstate in-person education, no matter the risk of infection.

Big Pharma offers another example. As publicly traded entities, pharmaceutical companies are under legal obligations to maximize shareholder value, not to act in the interests of public health. Fortunately, throughout the pandemic there has been a substantial convergence between the goals of companies that develop drugs and vaccines with the general public. We all benefit from the existence and availability of their products. And the risk to them of widespread harm from prematurely releasing a faulty product is so catastrophic as to provide reassurance even to those with no inherent trust in the industry. Pfizer’s CEO has been consistently correct in his call for increased use of boosters and there is no reason to believe that his latest recommendation for a fourth comes from a position of self-interest.

But at the same time, it’s naïve to think that the administration’s “all vaccines, all the time” policy isn’t tilted in their direction — neither “Big Mask” nor “Big Box Fan with HEPA Filters Taped on” stand a chance.

Nor is Big Pharma the only industry making money. Without a belief that rich people getting richer is better for everyone, it is hard to imagine how the interests of companies that profit from the sale of ineffective cures or, more generally, from uninterrupted access to places of public accommodation should be of greater concern than the risk to individuals of being exposed to a novel virus.

Beyond direct economic self-interest, there are layers of legitimate political self-interest at stake, such as the desire to appear certain or “in control.” At every stage, this has resulted in government officials either not acting to take appropriate measures, taking the wrong measures, such as foreign travel bans, or taking actions so late that they have no value.

So, as much as the phrase “do your own research” has been coopted by those critical of the CDC, it’s something everyone should be doing to some extent, even if that means following trusted academic experts who are not government employees, like @MOsterholm, @CelineGounder, @PeterHotez, and @MeganRanney.

We have never heard from this administration or the last its metrics of success or its tolerance of risk. Without knowing the parameters of “acceptable” rates of death (a question much discussed in the U.K., although not so much here), illness, disability, or social upheaval, it’s impossible to evaluate the government’s decisions.

Meanwhile, especially in the face of the Omicron variant, it’s certainly not helpful to throw up our hands and accept current levels of illness, disability, and death. There is considerable reason to believe that we will not be under siege forever. It is likely that in ten or 15 years there will be well established protocols not just to prevent infection through vaccines, but to intervene in ways that significantly lessen both the short- and long-term effects of COVID. It’s happened with many other viruses, and there’s no reason to think it won’t happen with COVID too. For the first five chaotic years when HIV was spreading rapidly, there was no reliable test, no effective treatment, no known means of prevention, and certainly no vaccine. Both shingles/chickenpox and human papillomavirus — two diseases that still don’t have reliable cures — are being hounded into extinction by preventative vaccines. It would have made no sense, though, to give up and let them spread unchecked.

In the face of an ever-worsening global pandemic, it is more than time for all of us to grow up and face this threat with some semblance of togetherness. Whether you trust the government or not, the pertinent thing to remember is that all entities without a fiduciary duty to protect your health and safety — whether it’s Fox News or the CDC — provide news and advice congruent with their own interests, which may or may not be congruent with yours. It’s up to each of us to question and understand those motives, to demand accountability and transparency, and to stay informed rather than assume others will act in our best interests.

Jennifer S. Bard

Jennifer S. Bard is a professor of law at the University of Cincinnati College of Law where she also holds an appointment as professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. Prior to joining the University of Cincinnati, Bard was associate vice provost for academic engagement at Texas Tech University and was the Alvin R. Allison Professor of Law and director of the Health Law and JD/MD program at Texas Tech University School of Law. From 2012 to 2013, she served as associate dean for faculty research and development at Texas Tech Law.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.