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Is Rand Paul actually wrong?

Summary:
This Yahoo headline caught my eye: The story contained these competing claims: The senator urged all those who have recovered from the coronavirus to throw out their masks and go out and enjoy public spaces because they are now “immune” to it. This is not true; there have been confirmed cases of reinfection both in the U.S. and abroad. “We have 11 million people in our country who have already had COVID. We should tell them to celebrate. We should tell them to throw away their masks, go to restaurants, and live again, because these people are now immune,” he told Fox News host Martha MacCallum. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that reinfection is possible and that all people should wear masks in public spaces, regardless of whether they have

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This Yahoo headline caught my eye:

The story contained these competing claims:

The senator urged all those who have recovered from the coronavirus to throw out their masks and go out and enjoy public spaces because they are now “immune” to it. This is not true; there have been confirmed cases of reinfection both in the U.S. and abroad.

“We have 11 million people in our country who have already had COVID. We should tell them to celebrate. We should tell them to throw away their masks, go to restaurants, and live again, because these people are now immune,” he told Fox News host Martha MacCallum.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that reinfection is possible and that all people should wear masks in public spaces, regardless of whether they have had COVID-19 or not.

It is certainly true that reinfection is possible, but that has almost no bearing on whether Rand Paul is correct when he tells those who have had the disease to throw away their masks.  The question is whether the risk of re-infection is high enough to make mask wearing appropriate, not whether it’s zero.  I don’t know the answer to that question, but this article suggests the risk of reinfection (before there is a vaccine) is very low:

Following the news this week of what appears to have been the first confirmed case of a Covid-19 reinfection, other researchers have been coming forward with their own reports. One in Belgium, another in the Netherlands. And now, one in Nevada.

That doesn’t sound like very many for a world with many tens of millions of recovered Covid victims.

You might think that I’m just quibbling over a minor point, but I have in mind something more serious.  There’s a danger that people use measures appropriate for a very serious crisis even after the threat becomes far lower.

Consider this analogy.  The 9/11 terrorist attack was a severe shock to the US, with nearly 3000 killed.  After this event, we quickly took measures to prevent a repeat.  But then we went much further, taking extremely costly steps to prevent far smaller terrorist attacks, where the costs almost certainly outweighed the benefits.  My fear is that we’ll come out of this with mask wearing becoming somehow normalized, even for medical threats an order of magnitude lower than Covid-19.  For “just the flu”.

People who early on claimed that this is “just the flu” were rightly criticized.  But what is the actual risk for those who have already had the virus once?  I don’t know, but I’m not able to find evidence that the risk is significant enough to require mask wearing.

There are other arguments for having everyone wear masks in crowded stores until we have a vaccine.  It provides “social solidarity”, as customers might feel more comfortable if other shoppers have masks.  They would not be aware that the person not wearing a mask had already recovered.  But if that’s your actual objection to Rand Paul’s statement, then say so!

I’m a big fan of mask wearing and have no ax to grind on this issue.  So if I’m wrong about reinfections, if those who have recovered are still highly likely to get the disease again, then let me know that I’m wrong about the facts and I’ll change my view.

Scott Sumner
Scott B. Sumner is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, the Director of the Program on Monetary Policy at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and an economist who teaches at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. His economics blog, The Money Illusion, popularized the idea of nominal GDP targeting, which says that the Fed should target nominal GDP—i.e., real GDP growth plus the rate of inflation—to better "induce the correct level of business investment". In May 2012, Chicago Fed President Charles L. Evans became the first sitting member of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) to endorse the idea.

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