hand opening white plastic pvc window at home.

It’s Time for the Federal Government to Get Back to Protecting the Nation Against COVID-19

By Jennifer S. Bard

Over the past two years, the Supreme Court has shown unprecedented hostility to efforts by both state and federal government to stop the spread of what every day turns out to be an even more deadly pandemic.

These decisions are devastating, and likely signal a continued attack on government authority, but they are not a reason to give up.

The federal government can still use its vast resources to slow the spread and continued mutation of the virus, by telling people what it knows of the danger, and what it knows about how to mitigate it.

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People wearing masks on bus.

Flaws in the Textualist Argument Against the CDC Mask Mandate

By Stefan Th. Gries, Michael Kranzlein, Nathan Schneider, Brian Slocum, and Kevin Tobia

In Health Freedom Defense Fund, Inc. v. Biden, the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida ruled that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s transit mask order, which was issued to stem the spread of SARS-CoV-2, exceeds the agency’s statutory authority, and struck down the mandate through a nation-wide injunction.

The district court’s reasoning exemplifies modern textualism. It focuses on the text of the 1944 Public Health Services Act (PHSA), which the Biden Administration claims authorizes the CDC’s transit mask order. The court relied heavily on the statute’s “ordinary meaning” and especially one word: “sanitation.”

Does the evidence support the court’s linguistic conclusions? Our team — of linguists, social scientists, philosophers of language, and lawyers — took a second look. We conclude that the district court’s approach fails on its own textualist terms. It gives the impression of selective reading of the linguistic record, rather than the careful investigation of meaning that textualism claims to champion.

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HVAC tech wearing mask and gloves changing an air filter

Providing Clean Air in Indoor Spaces: Moving Beyond Accommodations Towards Barrier Removal

By Jennifer Bard

One of the most persistently frustrating aspects of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as currently applied to schools and workplaces, is its emphasis on the eligibility of qualifying individuals for accommodation, rather than on population-based removal of barriers to participation.

This individualized approach has always been an uncomfortable fit, given the reality of changes in physical function throughout the lifespan, and is a particularly unsatisfying model for the collective threat of COVID-19, a novel virus that has not only caused at least a million deaths in the United States, but is likely to trigger a variety of disabling sequelae in many (perhaps most) of those who recover.

So far, however, there is mounting evidence that individuals who seek to protect themselves from infection with COVID-19 in school or in the workplace (very much including those who work in schools) are going to have to do based on their individual susceptibility to contracting COVID-19 or to being disproportionately affected by an infection.

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Washington DC 09 20 2021. More than 600,000 white flags honor lives lost to COVID, on the National Mall. The art installation " In America: Remember" was created by Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg.

Depoliticizing Social Murder in the COVID-19 Pandemic

­­By Nate Holdren

Lire en français.

The present pandemic nightmare is the most recent and an especially acute manifestation of capitalist society’s tendency to kill many, regularly, a tendency that Friedrich Engels called “social murder.” Capitalism kills because destructive behaviors are, to an important extent, compulsory in this kind of society. Enough businesses must make enough money or serious social consequences follow — for them, their employees, and for government. In order for that to happen, the rest of us must continue the economic activities that are obligatory to maintain such a society.

That these activities are obligatory means capitalist societies are market dependent: market participation is not optional, but mandatory. As Beatrice Adler-Bolton has put it, in capitalism “you are entitled to the survival you can buy,” and so people generally do what they have to in order to get money. The predictable results are that some people don’t get enough money to survive; some people endure danger due to harmful working, living, and environmental conditions; some people endure lack of enough goods and services of a high enough quality to promote full human flourishing; and some people inflict the above conditions on others. The simple, brutal reality is that capitalism kills many, regularly. (The steadily building apocalypse of the climate crisis is another manifestation of the tendency to social murder, as is the very old and still ongoing killing of workers in the ordinary operations of so many workplaces.)

The tendency to social murder creates potential problems that governments must manage, since states too are subject to pressures and tendencies arising from capitalism. They find themselves facing the results of social murder, results they are expected to respond to, with their options relatively constrained by the limits placed on them by capitalism. Within that context governments often resort to a specific tactic of governance: depoliticization.

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NEW YORK, NEW YORK: MAY 18, 2020: A jogger runs past a banner by the Battery Park City Authority reminding park visitors to please wear face masks.

Negotiating Masks in the Workplace: When the ADA Does and Does Not Apply

By Katherine Macfarlane

Workplaces are, by and large, no longer safe for employees who are high-risk for serious illness or death from COVID-19.

During the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was common for workplaces to require masks, at least in shared spaces. Two years later, though the pandemic is still ongoing, mask requirements are now far less prevalent as a result of the politicization of masks, so-called mask fatigue, and new guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

This move to relax masking rules presents significant dangers to those most vulnerable to severe outcomes from COVID-19. High-risk employees still need their co-workers to wear masks. They must now negotiate for safe workplaces in a social and political climate that is increasingly indifferent (or actively hostile) to their needs.

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Professional business teleworkers connecting online and working from home for their corporate company, remote working and networks concept.

Introduction to the Symposium: Build Back Better? Health, Disability, and the Future of Work Post-COVID

By Chloe Reichel, Marissa Mery, and Michael Ashley Stein

This week marks the two-year anniversary of World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom declaring COVID-19 a pandemic.

It is at this particular moment that we, in the United States, are beginning to see the sociological construction of the end of the pandemic: metrics measuring COVID-19 transmission have been radically revised to reshape perceptions of risk; masks are, once again, being shed en masse; and remote workers are being urged back to the office. “It’s time for America to get back to work and fill our great downtowns again with people,” President Joseph Biden said during his March 1, 2022 State of the Union address.

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children wearing masks.

Reconsidering Mask Mandates

By Carmel Shachar

The desire to get back to “normal” is an understandable one. And despite their prevalence for the last two years, masks don’t fit into most people’s concept of normal.

But removing mask requirements means rejecting yet another public health tool to control the pandemic and protect our health care system.

First, some context: most states haven’t had indoor mask mandates in place for many months. As of February 10th, only Washington, Oregon, California, New Mexico, Hawaii, Illinois, and Delaware had statewide indoor mask mandates. These remaining few states are now taking steps to end mask policies. Some states have narrower mask mandates that apply to schools, and are similarly moving to end such policies.

But the decision to end these mandates is not made in a vacuum. We should be thinking about what other public health initiatives and components should be in place before we lift these protections.

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Desolate winter scene.

A Timeline of Biden’s Pandemic Response, Part 4: Winter of Death (December 2021 – Present)

This series, which will run in four parts, has been adapted from “A year in, how has Biden done on pandemic response?” which was originally published on January 5, 2022 on Medium. Read the first, second, and third parts here.

By Justin Feldman

On December 1, 2021, the CDC issued a press release announcing that it had identified a case of the Omicron variant in the U.S. for the first time.

White House insiders admit that they were unprepared for Omicron, just as they were unprepared for Delta. Vice President Harris recently told an interviewer that the administration was caught flatfooted because their scientific advisors never warned that such variants could crop up (at least two of these advisors, Rick Bright and Celine Gounder, begged to differ).

While vaccination still provides powerful protection against hospitalization and death due to infection from Omicron, protection against symptomatic illness is weaker than before, particularly among those who have not received boosters. And though evidence is mounting that the risk of hospitalization and death is lower for each person infected compared to Delta, Omicron’s extremely high transmissibility means that a large fraction of the population will become infected in a short time period, particularly in the absence of additional public health measures.

On December 21, as the highly contagious variant started to sweep the country, President Biden delivered remarks about the new threat. For the hundred million Americans who remain unvaccinated, the president’s speech warned of the imminent risk of hospitalization and death. For the vaccinated and boosted, Biden’s message was: Keep Calm and Carry On, all will likely be fine. And for Wall Street, the speech was meant to provide a crucial piece of reassurance: There would be no federal support for public health measures that restrict commerce.

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Empty toolbox.

A Timeline of Biden’s Pandemic Response, Part 3: We Have the Tools (Sept. – Dec. 2021)

This series, which will run in four parts, has been adapted from “A year in, how has Biden done on pandemic response?” which was originally published on January 5, 2022 on Medium. Read the first and second parts here.

By Justin Feldman

Over the summer of 2021, concern grew that the vaccines were not providing the near-perfect protection against symptomatic disease and transmission that had first emboldened the administration to jettison other public health measures.

It was initially unclear whether the issue was Delta’s higher transmissibility or waning immunity from vaccines, as the first groups had been vaccinated nearly a year prior. There was noticeable concern from CDC, which acknowledged the “war has changed” in a set of leaked slides from July 29, 2021. Of particular concern were case reports from Massachusetts and internationally of high viral loads observed among those who were vaccinated and infected. In late July, CDC reversed course on its mask guidance and recommended indoor masking for all, including the fully vaccinated, in counties with high transmission. In late September 2021, CDC reversed course on its quarantine guidance, which had previously stated that fully vaccinated people should not quarantine after a known SARS-CoV-2 exposure.

These changing epidemiologic realities could have brought about a course correction and a push for other public health policies to complement vaccination. Instead, the administration mostly adapted by shifting its messaging.

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