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Power corrupts experts, too

OPINION

BY LEN CABRERA

During their April 15 meeting, the Gainesville City Commission discussed the possibility that the County might let the mask mandate expire. The ensuing discussion is a case study in megalomaniacal narcissism and an illustration of the adage that power corrupts. Elected commissioners and unelected government bureaucrats all seem oblivious to laws, data, or reality, and they endorse any narrative that supports giving them more power to control the lives of their subjects, who they clearly think are incapable of living without the expert micromanaging of their betters.

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During the meeting, Mayor Lauren Poe said, “what we need to continue to do to get to where we all want to be…” What came after is irrelevant unless you value your freedom. I suspect what Mayor Poe wants and what a vast majority of Gainesville residents want are probably not the same, since 92% of registered voters did not vote for him. Poe does not and never has spoken for “we all.”

He dutifully continued to preach panic porn, warning about “lifelong complications from this really dangerous virus.” If only he worried as much about the actual consequences of the policies he pushes through the commission that are bankrupting the city, raising taxes and utility rates, and transforming Gainesville into a typical blue city with all the crime, drug, and homeless problems that entails.

Paul Myers, Alachua County Administrator for the Florida Department of Health, was the lone voice of reason in the meeting (which is why he is often ignored). He reiterated that the original objectives of “flattening the curve” and not overwhelming the health care system have been accomplished. He pointed out that most of the vulnerable population has been vaccinated and the majority of new cases (people in their 20s and 30s) are not at high risk of serious outcomes.

That narrative doesn’t help power-hungry commissioners who are intent on fundamentally transforming our society, so they turned to someone who would say what they want to hear: the unelected, unappointed, and unaccountable Dr. Michael Lauzardo from the University of Florida. Power corrupts, and unelected power corrupts even faster (Exhibit A: Dr. Anthony Fauci). Dr. Lauzardo said, “We have the control over when this ends.” Actually, the city only has control over its own emergency orders, but that is based on an illegitimate use of emergency powers that can end as early as April 27 if Governor DeSantis does not renew the order. (The expiration would be guaranteed if our spineless state legislators had updated Florida Statute 252.36 to prevent unilateral renewal by the governor.) Note that restrictive government policies have not slowed or prevented COVID-19 anywhere in the country, and may have made things worse (see the comparison of population-adjusted cases for Florida and Michigan below, particularly the most recent wave).

Dr. Lauzardo’s proclamations are as contradictory and inconsistent as Dr. Fauci’s. He says young, healthy people need to get vaccinated, not to protect themselves, but to protect others. Where have we heard that before? That’s the same line used to push masks, all based on the false assumption of asymptomatic spread.

Recall Dr. Fauci’s January 2020 statement: “In all the history of respiratory-borne viruses of any type, asymptomatic transmission has never been the driver of outbreaks. The driver of outbreaks is always a symptomatic person. Even if there’s a rare asymptomatic person that might transmit, an epidemic is not driven by asymptomatic carriers.” Now he claims up to 50% of infections are from asymptomatic people, even though the CDC’s best estimate is that 30% of infections are asymptomatic (not 30% of transmissions but 30% of infections) and asymptomatic people are less likely to spread the virus than symptomatic people. Data reviewed by UF researchers and others show that asymptomatic spread is statistically insignificant, even in households, where there is close, prolonged contact with the infected person.

Dr. Lauzardo even recycled the “wait two weeks” line as he recited the mandatory mask cult mantra (“I think that masks are important”). Maybe he’s a doctor of religion rather than a medical doctor who can actually read scientific journal articles on randomized controlled studies that show masks do not work to stop the spread of respiratory viruses. (Review the medical literature or look at the data on masks.)

Dr. Lauzardo also doesn’t review basic COVID-19 data, even though that’s supposedly what he’s advising the commissioners about. He said, “we’ll know we’ll get there when the [case numbers] start to go down.” They’ve been dropping since the first week of January. Alachua County daily cases for COVID-19 peaked at 249 on January 7 (167 for the 7-day average) and have dropped 86% to 34 on April 17 (38 for the 7-day average, a 77% decrease). The graph below shows cases per 100,000 population for Florida, Alachua County, and Marion County. Other than early September (when UF students returned), the basic shape is the same regardless of non-pharmaceutical interventions like mask mandates.

Dr. Lauzardo also does not understand basic statistics. He said he wants to maintain our current level of testing and get our positive test rate below one percent. During public comment, Nathan Skop wisely asked if it is reasonable to get a consistent one percent rate, given the indisputable fact that all tests have false positives.

Dr. Lauzardo seemed confused on false positives. He said, “when you get positives among asymptomatics, if there’s not a lot of community transmission, you don’t have a lot of people in the hospital, if you get a positive, they’re likely to be false positives. It goes way down as the incidence in the population goes down.” The first part of that statement is correct, but the second is not: false positives go up as the incidence in the population goes down. This is a basic result of Bayes Theorem, a statistical method for flipping conditional probabilities.

Tests have a reported sensitivity (percentage of positive tests correctly returned for infected people) and specificity (percentage of negative tests correctly returned for non-infected people). When we test people without knowing if they were infected or not, the probabilities flip, so we calculate the chance of a person being infected (or not), given the test result.

All the test manufacturers claim 100% specificity, but that’s about as reliable as every car manufacturer claiming they have the best fuel economy. Cohen & Kessel show 8 different PCR tests that all advertise 100% specificity. However, they reviewed real data on PCR tests for RNA viruses since 2004 (not manufacturer claims) and found the median specificity was 97.7%. The majority fell between 96% and 99%, with one as low as 84%.

Using a sensitivity of 99% (this number has only a very small effect on false positives) and specificity of 97.7%, and estimating the disease prevalence using the percentage of positive tests (so the value can change from day to day), Bayes Theorem predicts that over a quarter of all positive tests in the state of Florida since April 1, 2020 are false positives (i.e., people who tested positive but were not actually infected). That’s over half a million people. (Click here to review the math.)

To illustrate the problem of Dr. Lauzardo’s one percent goal, here’s a graph using UF’s testing data since October 18 (when they changed their reporting to the current dashboard) with a generous 99% specificity and 99% sensitivity (ignoring any days with fewer than 10 tests). The average test positivity rate since February 1 is 0.94%, which is what Dr. Lauzardo wants to see. Bayes Theorem tells us that on all of those days, over half of the positive results were false positives.

If you didn’t follow all the math above, the bottom line is that if we, as a community, get anywhere near a true 1% positivity rate, the majority of the positive tests will be false positives, meaning that the number of cases per day will be determined almost entirely by the number of tests given.

UF’s mass testing has the dual effect of reducing our community’s positivity rate by testing a large number of asymptomatic people but also increasing our community’s case rate with the false positives that are generated by testing a low-prevalence, asymptomatic population. If UF stops testing students after they are fully-vaccinated, the positivity rate will go up because those who get tested are more likely to be sick (and thus the positivity rate will reflect the probability that a symptomatic person has COVID-19 instead of the prevalence in the overall community). UF’s testing program simultaneously keeps the county’s positivity rate low while adding enough cases to keep us out of Dr. Lauzardo’s “single digit cases” zone. (This is vividly demonstrated by a drop in the number of cases on weekends, while positivity rates simultaneously go up.)

UF reportedly uses the SalivaDirect rRT-PCR test, which is “intended for use in individuals without symptoms or other epidemiological reasons to suspect COVID-19.” This test, like many, claims 100% specificity, but the 2.3% error rate found in the Cohen-Kessel paper cited above was primarily driven by errors in sample collection and processing. There are simply no tests that are 100% accurate.

This is why the FDA’s SARS-CoV-2 rRT-PCR fact sheet says in big, bold letters: “This test is to be performed only using  respiratory specimens collected from individuals suspected of COVID-19 by their healthcare provider” (emphasis added). By only testing symptomatic people, the prevalence in the sample should be closer to 50%, dropping the probability of a false positive all the way down to 2%. If we continue mass testing asymptomatic people when there is 1% prevalence, the probability of false positives is 70%.

People have been warning about problems with mass testing for months, but they tend to get labeled as extremists. Now we have “extremist” sites like The Spectator, The New York Times, and the World Health Organization all acknowledging that problems with the sensitivity of PCR tests make them counter-productive.

None of this information will matter to the commissioners or Dr. Lauzardo. They like to dismiss anyone who disagrees with them as an extremist or a provider of misinformation, just like the county commission did when public comment was 29 to 5 in favor of removing the mask mandate. After that meeting, Commissioner Mary Alford went so far as to praise Chanae Jackson, who presented no data and mainly insulted all of the citizens who spoke before her. Alford must have great confidence in her chances for re-election if she can openly insult her constituents and fear no repercussions at the ballot box. As a newly-elected commissioner, maybe she’s hoping we will forget about her posts by the time her next election rolls around.

It’s understandable that power-hungry politicians do not want to see any information that discredits their claim to emergency powers. A complicit media has done a great job of stoking the fear, leading to surveys showing that people greatly overestimate the medical impact of COVID. Kekst CNC showed that people in the U.S. thought there were 20 times more cases and 225 times more deaths that we actually have. The New York Times published a Gallup poll that found over 60% of people overestimated the percentage of COVID-19 cases that get hospitalized, regardless of political party (see the graphic below from their article). More rational analysis from both sides of the political aisle recognize the COVID-19 misperception fueled by media coverage (see FEE or Brookings). It would be interesting to see what numbers the commissioners and Dr. Lauzardo come up with when asked to be specific about the likelihood of COVID-19 hospitalizations or the age distribution of COVID-19 deaths.

For the commissioners and their hacks, it’s much easier to ignore contrary information that is presented by people they disagree with. All they have are appeals to authority (“We’re following CDC recommendations!”) so they can ignore the contradictory data while claiming to be following the SCIENCE™. It’s not like they’ll see that information on their own since they probably don’t even know how to download the data, let alone analyze it themselves.

The arrogance, condescension, and ignorance of the commissioners and Dr. Lauzardo show that my March 23, 2020 statement has stood the test of time: “Our society will survive the coronavirus, but we may not survive the heavy-handed, one-size-fits-all, patronizing dictates from statist politicians, drunk on power, who forget that they’re supposed to represent the citizens, not rule them.”

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