Science is under a frightening assault throughout the country. Here in Montgomery County, home to the NIH, FDA, Naval Medical Center, Walter Reed, numerous biotech companies, and thousands of scientific, medical, and healthcare professionals, I naively thought we were immune. Sadly, not only are we not immune, a dangerous disregard for science is being promoted by our elected officials.
As a biomedical scientist I have been appalled at the abundance of anti-science disinformation. Scientific studies are being treated like ice cream toppings at a buffet. Choose the ones you like best. Science is just a matter of personal preference in which all studies are equally good. Pick your favorite that suits your purpose.
Scientific denials and ignorance have set a dangerous precedent in the past, including the anti-vaccination movement bringing back measles epidemics, lack of understanding of homosexuality leading to conversion therapy treatments, and denial of global warming leading to several harmful deregulation policies.
The knowledge regarding COVID-19 in January 2021 has advanced greatly since that of March 2020, and the overwhelming scientific evidence demonstrates that, when mask-wearing and social distancing are maintained, schools provide minimal opportunity for viral transmission and that schools are some of the safest places for our children and teachers. The CDC just released a report showing scant spread of COVID-19 in schools. Millions of students and hundreds of thousands of teachers returned to school in the fall, and the researchers found it is safe to reopen schools even in areas with high community case rates.
The world’s leading health experts unequivocally agree that scientific data demonstrate schools can be opened safely – these include new CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, former CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield, NIAID director Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Nina Schwalbe of UNICEF/ UN Institute of Global Health, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
However, at a recent Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) Board of Education meeting, Superintendent Jack Smith, senior board of education member Patricia O’Neill, and three MCPS educators presented anecdotal examples as science, such as information taken from an informal blog and misleading statements about breathing rates. They talked about ‘a million opinions about COVID19 science’ and seemed to suggest that people can choose any study they want. All of this was to support keeping schools closed. None of the board members questioned these statements including recently elected board member Ms. Lynne Harris, who has a nursing degree and public health background.
There was no mention of current scientific recommendations and no regard for the opinions of the world’s leading medical and scientific experts supporting that schools can safely reopen. Instead they armed themselves with “alternative facts” to promote harmful policies.
Soon after the meeting, Maryland Deputy Secretary of Public Health Dr. Jinlene Chan gave the updated state guidance that Superintendent Smith had been requesting. Based on the totality of data, current science, and guidance from national experts, it is safe to open schools independent of community case rates, without a minimum threshold of vaccines administered, and by following the MCPS mitigation strategies in their approved reopening plan.
Almost immediately after Dr. Chan’s statement, state delegate and MD House majority leader Eric Luedtke, Montgomery County Council president Tom Hucker, and council member Craig Rice tweeted about the necessity for vaccinations for teachers and staff in MCPS to open schools, clearly contrary to Dr. Chan’s directive and the scientific evidence. Mr. Luedkte stated that parents, students, teachers, and school board members should decide when they “feel it’s safe” to open, clearly disregarding public health experts. But this is the problem. Policies need to be based on facts, not feelings.
Words matter. And they can have unintended consequences. These types of comments about science from leaders can be incredibly harmful, as we have seen with individuals drinking bleach to fight COVID-19. This is NOT simply a matter of different scientific opinions, this is wrong and negligent.
Science is a rigorous process with careful studies and reproducible data that lead to an accepted consensus. It is the foundation for the safe medicines and medical treatments that we trust every day. That is why we must trust the guidance of our top public health officials that have the scientific expertise. It is easy to be caught up in some of the social media commentary and opinions about COVID-19, and it’s tempting to find studies of interest. But leaders must parse fact from fiction and familiarize themselves with the scientific data if they want to develop meaningful policies.
Our elected school board and our local county and state officials must stand with science. Set the example of following reputable scientific leaders and organizations in the U.S. even if it doesn’t neatly fit with your political agendas, and especially if it doesn’t fit with your agenda. Model the brave leadership we desperately need.
Traicoff has a PhD in Molecular Biology and Microbiology and 30 years of experience in biomedical research and management. She is the parent of 2 MCPS students.