Discussions of Book of Mormon issues and evidences, plus other topics related to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Friday, October 15, 2021

Institutional Bullying and the Question of Religious Exemption from Vaccine Mandates

I received a call this week from a father with two children facing intimidation and bullying from the universities they are attending. As is common these days, those who have concerns about the COVID vaccine and are hesitant to be vaccinated are treated as second-class citizens, with corporations, universities, and other institutions treating them as second-class citizens if not pariahs to be ousted. At the two universities in question, the vaccine hesitant are easily identified and are pressured or bullied by other students and intimidated by the university. Sincere religious concerns do not count for much. 

Religious exemption requests are based on the idea enshrined in the Constitution that American citizens should have freedom to practice their religion. Of course, where the boundaries of those freedoms are is a complex and thorny issue. But an important aspect of that liberty is codified into law in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination of employees on the basis of religion. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission requires employers to provide "reasonable accommodations" for the sincere religious beliefs of workers unless that would cause undue hardship. Similar principles have been put into state laws and are part of the official policies of many universities. See, for example, the Religious Accommodations Policy of the University of North Carolina

But what does this have to do with COVID? No major religious organization, as far as I know, has come out against COVID vaccination. The leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have encouraged us to protect ourselves and others by being vaccinated. (For the record, my wife and I are vaccinated and we think it's a good idea to get vaccinated, especially if they do not already have natural immunity and are in a high-risk category or closely associate with those at high risk.) So how can there be a sincere religious objection to the COVID vaccine? 

Two Possible Grounds for Religious Objections

The two university students in question have concerns about the use of fetal cells in the R&D and development that led to these new vaccines. The vaccines do not contain fetal cells, but fetal cells were used in the development and commercialization of the vaccines that are available in the US. Many people who share an opposition to unnecessary abortion and strongly believe in the sanctity of human life do not necessarily object to the use of modern fetal cell lines that have been cultured from fetal cells taken in the 1970s, especially when those fetal cells are not physically part of the product. But there are arguments both ways. I think we need to understand that a person can have a sincere concern about any new medical product that was invented or developed through the use of abortion, even if the abortion occurred long ago.  If aborted cells were an integral part of the development and introduction of a new product, I can see why it might be viewed as tainted and objectionable to use, or especially repugnant to take into one's body. 

As reported by the State of Michigan in their fact sheet on fetal cells and COVID vaccines (PDF), the “Johnson & Johnson (Janssen) COVID-19 vaccine used a fetal cell line to produce and manufacture their vaccine.” While the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccine did not use a fetal cell line to manufacture their vaccine, “a fetal cell line was used in a very early phase to confirm efficacy prior to production and manufacturing.” All three vaccines are thus subject to potential religious concerns about the use of fetal cells for the development of a new drug.  

But fetal cell use is not the only reason a religious person might have a sincere religious concern about the COVID vaccines or any experimental drug or drug that has not had the normal years of long-term safety testing. As I discussed in my Sept. 10, 2021 post on the Emmy Award-winning singer, Victory Boyd, whose contract with the NFL was terminated when she refused vaccination on religious grounds, Ms. Boyd based her request for a religious exemption on the biblical concept of the sanctity of her body and the desire to not take potentially harmful (or not completely tested) substances into her body. Here is her statement:

“The Bible admonishes Christians to appreciate their bodies as being sacred and a temple of the Holy Spirit and to not participate in things that can defile the body or render the body dysfunctional.

“I am in prayer to make sure that the Lord guides me into the right decision concerning receiving an unproven injection with artificial properties that can potentially have a long-term effect on my reproductive health.

“If I want to take the vaccine, the decision will be between myself, my doctor, and my God. At this point, the Spirit of God is leading me to take a stand for freedom of choice.”

Sadly, the "my body, my choice" argument only seems to work if it's being used to justify destroying someone else's very vulnerable prenatal body. When it comes to actually protecting your own body from unwanted substances, many institutions insist that compliance is the only option with no effort at all to make reasonable accommodations for one's sincere concerns. But that doesn't mean a person with those concerns should be silenced, shamed, or booted from the company or university. Even if we disagree with the religious concerns, I think we need to stand with those who are asking for their religious views and rights to be respected.

As Latter-day Saints with our own health code, we are taught to have concerns about taking harmful substances into our body. Tobacco, alcohol, and harmful drugs are on the list. But what about drugs where the safety status has not been fully resolved due to the lack of long-term studies on such issues as reproductive health or cancer? The two students in question both wish to be parents one day and have sincere concerns about the long-term impact of the vaccines on reproductive health. What is the impact on pregnancy or on fetal development or mutations? What we know so far from extensive safety testing in the past 18 months is that the vaccines are safe. But no matter how awesome your short-term testing is, no matter how close your rats and mice are to humans, there are some human health issues that cannot be fully settled with one or two years of testing. Most vaccines go through 10 to 15 years of development and testing before being rolled out for widespread use. There is a sincere reason why someone might feel short-term testing is not enough time to take a substance that could affect them for the rest of their life. It's a reasonable basis for a religious exemption and a reasonable basis for a scientific objection. I'm not saying we have to agree with it or that the argument is compelling, but it is a position that a reasonable person can take. 

There may be further grounds for religious exemption requests besides the two considered here, but please understand that those having religious objections may have more than one basis for their concerns. 

As healthy young people with very little risk to COVID, both of these students wonder why they should be compelled to take a substance into their bodies that may bring genuine risk (though risk that at the moment seems quite rare) yet offers very little benefit for them while in their youth. Given their health and age, having COVID is very unlikely to send them to the hospital to use up limited resources for others. Their vaccinated peers have very little to fear from them if the vaccines are effective. Compelling them to take a medication that may bring risk but offers little benefit seems unfair. Giving them time to wait for long-term safety results doesn't seem unreasonable. 

Aspirin, Tylenol, Ex-Lax and the Hypocrisy Test

One of the children of the father who called me had already expressed the desire for a religious exemption to the university, which apparently claims that it will make reasonable accommodations to sincere religious belief. In response, the university provided an intimidating form to "test" the sincerity of that belief by giving a long list of popular over-the-counter products that allegedly also have used fetal cells. The form requires students seeking a religious exemption to vow that they do not and will not use such products.

The hypocrisy test apparently was developed at the healthcare company, Conway Medical, per Tristates Public Radio, WIUM. Here's their form (click to enlarge):


The same list is now being used in many parts of the country, including at some universities. This hypocrisy test, in my opinion, might not really be based on a good-faith desire to confirm the sincerity of a student's religious views, for it feels like it is intended to intimidate students and mock their belief. It's a little like saying, "Oh, you refuse to drink alcohol due to religious beliefs? According to science, you're a hypocrite.  We've seen you drinking orange juice and eating bananas, both of which can contain around 0.2% ethanol. We've seen you eating hamburgers with baked buns known to have over 1% ethanol. It's amazing you can even walk straight right now. You obviously don't have a sincere religious belief against alcohol. Now drink up!" 

This alcohol-related mocking is only a little like the mockery of the university's hypocrisy test, because my alcohol hypocrisy test is actually much more logical. Alcohol occurs naturally in many foods, enough so that parents perhaps really should be cautious about giving young children lots of fruit juice. See Eva Gorgus, Maike Hittinger, and Dieter Schrenk, "Estimates of Ethanol Exposure in Children from Food not Labeled as Alcohol-Containing," Journal of Analytical Toxicology, vol. 40, no. 7 (Sept. 2016): 537–542. But there's still a significant difference between most alcohol-rich foods and the alcohol content of beer, wine, or liquor. 

Importantly, whether my religious acceptance of the Word of Wisdom's prohibition of alcohol is logical or scientific does not determine the sincerity of my religious belief. My religious beliefs related to what I eat or drink is based on revelation and to some degree religious tradition in interpreting that revelation. I personally avoid low-alcohol beer, even if its alcohol content might actually be less than that of my favorite fresh-baked bread. Our response to the Word of Wisdom may seem illogical or contradictory when explored by secular observers. But guess what? It's religion. It's a matter of faith and sometimes a matter of tradition. It's not supposed to make perfect sense to outside secular observers. Religion of all kinds abounds with elements that require faith and may seem contradictory, superstitious, or unreasonable to outsiders, especially those looking for reasons to criticize. Whether it's the nature of the Trinity or the refusal to eat cheeseburgers based on an interpretation of a verse in the Torah, there are things that are puzzling to those outside the believer's faith. Whether a student has taken Tylenol is not a fair gauge of the sincerity of religious belief.

Further, the university's hypocrisy test is actually deceptive and unreasonable. It is deceptive because nearly all of the products on the list were developed and marketed without the use of fetal cells, often long before fetal cells were even available for testing. Aspirin, which was first marketed by Bayer in 1899 but has a history that goes much further back in time. Ex-Lax was first produced in 1906. Tums was introduced to the market in 1928 but employs compounds known to be safe long before that. Preparation H dates to around 1935. Ibuprofen was discovered in 1961. Now that aspirin is on the market, if some lab or manufacturer decides to test it with fetal cells, I don't need to reject aspirin if my religious belief and conscience leads me to reject products that relied on abortion for their development and commercialization. Products that were developed and commercialized independent of an aborted child are what some people object to. Taking an existing product that did not rely on the cells of an aborted fetus for its development and commercialization and then later testing it with fetal cells may be unfortunate, but need not require the believer to reject that product.

If some lab decides to test the safety of lettuce using fetal cells, that would be unfortunate, but it does not turn pro-lifers objecting to fetal cell use in vaccines into hypocrites if they are caught eating salad. Lettuce salad, like most of the products on the hypocrisy test list, was an established product long before fetal cells were available for testing.

A Better Sincerity Test

If the universities really want to know if these students have sincere objections to the vaccines based on pro-life views or the Word of Wisdom or some other matter of faith and conscience, the right gauge is not whether or not they have ever used aspirin, Tylenol, Ex-Lax, etc., or consumed fresh-baked bread or orange juice. The hypocrisy test is great as a secular tool to belittle the beliefs of others, but if you want to know how sincere those students are, a better tool might be to simply observe what they have been doing already. In spite of being publicly shamed as vaccine hesitant rebels, facing sustained harassment from fellow students motivated by statements and policies from the university without respect for the medical privacy and personal beliefs of the students, these students continue to maintain their position and to implore the university for the right to control what is taken into their bodies and to avoid an injection of a substance that, unlike aspirin or Tylenol, relied on the cells of an aborted fetus for its very existence (i.e., its development and commercialization). Being willing to face that kind of pressure and discrimination and now to risk being expelled from the university for their beliefs seems like an indicator of sincerity, even if we don't share or agree with the position they take. 

The "Scientific Exemption": It's Not Just Religion We Need to Respect

For the two university students in question, the objection to the vaccine is not just based on religious concerns, though I think they should be respected in spite of my not fully agreeing with them. Besides the religious concerns, there is also a scientific or health-based objection, and they may be including a request for a "scientific exemption" in their requests to the university. 
 
Their concern is that they are young, healthy people with almost zero risk from COVID. The decision to receive the vaccination makes a long-lasting change in their bodies and while the evidence so far points to a high level of safety, there are significant unanswered questions. A particular concern is about long-term impact on their reproductive health. These concerns are swiftly dismissed by advocated of vaccine mandates based on "extensive" testing in the past 18 months or so. But have we really had enough time to understand the effect on the human reproductive system and on children born to those who have received the vaccine? Do we understand the long-term effect on cancer? How can we have solid answers in such a short time?
 
If concerns about reproductive issues have been fully assessed already, why did the NIH just award five institutions grants “to explore potential links between COVID-19 vaccination and menstrual change”? See the NIH post, "COVID-19 Vaccines and the Menstrual CycleNIH encourages researchers to investigate reported changes in menstruation after COVID-19 vaccination." Here there are enough concerns that have been raised for the NIH to launch a study related to reproductive health.  Note that these grants in no way suggest there are any reasons to believe that the vaccine might have any adverse impact on fertility or on children born to vaccinated parents, and I personally don't know of any data suggesting the least real concern so far. But if understanding the effect on menstruation requires more time and money, could their be other aspects of reproductive health that will require even more time? Ditto for the long-term effect on cancer or other ailments.  It is not unscientific to ask questions about such effects and to seek more data before taking injections that can impact my body for decades to come with effects that are not yet clear.  I may not agree, but a person can have sound scientific reasons for at least wanting more data before committing to vaccination. There is a reasonable basis for a good-faith request for a "scientific exemption" from the vaccine mandate based on the principle of stewardship over one's body, back to "my body, my choice."

Finally, Let's Not Forget Natural Immunity

One of the most puzzling things about the vaccine mandates sweeping this country is the uniform neglect of natural immunity. Why should those who have already had COVID need to be vaccinated as a condition of employment or continuing at a university?

While I am vaccinated and think it's a good idea for most people, I also recognize the scientifically demonstrated principle of natural immunity and feel that those who have already lived through COVID should be given recognition for their natural antibodies. There should also be recognition that adverse reactions, though typically mild, are more likely for those that have already had COVID and is something that might reasonably be weighed in a person's personal decision about vaccination.

A few days ago, I met a young mom who was required by her employer to get the vaccine in spite of having had COVID. She objected and asked for an exemption based on already having antibodies. Request denied. So she buckled. For her, the adverse reaction to the vaccine was much worse than COVID. COVID was like having a cold for her, but the vaccine caused intense pain and fatigue that kept her ill for about a week. Unfortunately, even after a month she said feels she's only 75% back to normal. 

Meanwhile, a close friend of that woman had COVID and struggled with the complication of myocarditis. Now he's been forced by his employer to receive the vaccination, even though it is known that young men like him may be at some risk of myocarditis from the vaccine (again, the vaccines are generally safe and I still encourage vaccination, but also encourage respect for individual concerns). He's asked for an exemption based on medical risk and the fact that he already has natural antibodies. Request denied, even though his doctor is on his side (so I was told, but maybe she had the story wrong). He's deeply worried about his health and does not want the vaccination, but may have to leave his high-paying job in the financial industry. Shouldn't there be respect for people's health and for their concerns? Shouldn't there be reasonable accommodations for reasonable health-based and scientific objections, as well as religious objections? Concerns about myocarditis, especially in males, are not based on mere rumors and fake news, but are leading Europe to take significant steps. See the Oct. 8, 2021 CNBC report, "Nordic countries are restricting the use of Moderna’s Covid vaccine. Here’s why," and the earlier July 9, 2021 Reuters story, "EU finds potential link between heart inflammation and mRNA COVID shots." These concerns are generally minor and don't affect everyone, but they can affect some. The CDC is also aware of some reports of myocarditis, but still encourages vaccination. But we must not forget that there are always risks with any drug, and these need to be weighed against the benefits.

There are plenty of good reasons to be vaccinated, and I'm glad (so far, anyway) that I've been vaccinated. But may we have enough compassion and respect for others to recognize that there are genuine religious and scientific concerns that some may have. Today there is popular pressure to shame such individuals, some of whom are likely in our own wards or branches, families, workplaces, or schools. 

May we express our humanity and our tolerance of diversity by standing for their freedom to choose, for their rights to have their religious views reasonably accommodated and their scientific objections to be considered. May we stand against the unreasonable and hateful condemnation of the unvaccinated and sweeping one-size-fits-all vaccine mandates that may be genuinely unnecessary for many. May we resist the manipulative paranoia and fear that is causing some of us vaccinated people to dread and despise those who have sincere reasons for not wanting the vaccination at this time. And may we help keep them from being fired or expelled from universities, especially those who are in critical areas related to health care, law enforcement, manufacturing, and numerous other fields already suffering from a shortage of talent. Reasonable accommodation and kindness is surely the most reasonable thing we can be doing with those who have sincere concerns about these new vaccines.

UPDATE, Oct. 21, 2021: The social argument for vaccine mandates needs more discussion and more science. It's repeated without question as an article of faith, often without consideration of data and the existence of other means of mitigating risks. Those wishing to not be pressured into letting others make decisions about one's body and one's health care may be on even stronger grounds in light of the latest relevant scientific report:  S. V. Subramanian and Akhil Kumar, "Increases in COVID-19 are unrelated to levels of vaccination across 68 countries and 2947 counties in the United States," European Journal of Epidemiology (Sept. 30, 2021), https://doi.org/10.1007/s10654-021-00808-7. Analysis of extensive data suggests that high levels of vaccination aren't effective in slowing the spread of the virus. The benefit is the reduced risk to the vaccinated. This seems to greatly weaken the "social good" argument that requires people to "give up their 'precious' freedoms" and let some corporate or political bureaucrat dictate what medical treatment they receive instead of making their own decision. I'm pro-vaccine, but also pro-freedom. There are cases where the social good argument may be compelling, but the data does not seem to come close to supporting that in this case. If vaccination does not greatly reduce the spread of the infection, what's the basis for vaccine mandates and shaming the unvaccinated? It's time we engage in conversation on this topic.

 

Monday, September 20, 2021

Zeal Without Data: Blaming the Church for Utah's Allegedly Low Vaccination Rates

Romans 10:2 speaks of those who "have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge." Psalm 19:2 in the NET (New English Translation) tells us that "It is dangerous to have zeal without knowledge, and the one who acts hastily makes poor choices." Hugh Nibley was fond of the phrase "zeal without knowledge" and once gave a talk at BYU with that title. Zeal without knowledge can refer to those who think they are valiantly following God but acting in ignorance of the truth, which can lead to atrocious results that hurt others and hinder Zion. Nibley urges us to do our own thinking, to use our minds, to constantly seek knowledge, so that we can mature, grow, and do what's right. "Zeal makes us loyal and unflinching, but God wants more than that." Nibley quotes Joseph Smith (Teaching of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 80) saying, "Many, having a zeal not according to knowledge," said the Prophet, " . . . have, no doubt, in the heat of enthusiasm, taught and said many things which are derogatory to the genuine character and principles of the Church." 

That problem continues to this day, in spite of he incredible growth of access to information. Highly educated people who think they know what they are talking about can easily act in zeal, driven by their passionate loyalty for misguided causes, sharing information and teachings that are based on ignorance and a lack of accurate data. Nibley warned that if we don't actively seek and obtain good information and use our minds to their full capacity, then "false information flourishes" and we are likely to believe all sorts of preposterous nonsense.

A case in point is the very unfortunate op-ed column by a Latter-day Saint professor, Benjamin Park, in the influential Washington Post explaining why the past conservative politics of the Church is to blame for Utah's allegedly very low vaccination level. The subhead (line below the headline) declares that "LDS leaders stoked a far-right culture for decades. Now it might undermine their authority." Yep, that's the problem, all right. Utah's got some Republicans and it's the Church that foolishly "stoked" that. Now I suppose Utahans are going to be devastated by COVID as a result since those ignorant right-wingers aren't getting vaccinated.

Park jumps in quickly with data showing how behind Utah is: "Less than half of eligible residents of Utah, where members constitute a majority of the population, are fully vaccinated, placing the state in the lower half of the nation." The link he gives is to a Utah vaccine dashboard where Park apparently has taken the percent vaccinated among all Utahans, not the smaller population of "eligible residents." Huh? 

It's well known that Utah has lots of children, and children under the age of 12 are not eligible for vaccination. So why isn't Park looking at the eligible population when he claims to be reporting that data? That dashboard page shows Utah's vaccination level is at 51.2% of all residents (might have been just below 50% when Park penned his article in August), but what's the level among the eligible? This isn't hard to find. In fact, the Utah dashboard page that Park linked provides relevant data right next to the number Park was using. The more relevant number is hard to miss: "Percent 12+ Received at Least One Dose" and the value reported is at 72%.  That's a lot better than "less than half." The number who are fully vaccinated is at 63% of the eligible population. You can also see how Utah compares to the rest of the nation -- not bad at all all  -- on the Mayo Clinic's Vaccine Tracker page under the section, "State COVID-19 vaccine rates by age."

If there was any kind of real fact checking going on at the Washington Post, this embarrassing blunder would have been rectified -- but then the story would not come close to fitting the desired narrative, for the real data directly contradict the basis of Park's rant.

Park's error is treated in more detail by A&R Skabelund in the post, "An Attack of Mormon Mania: Embarrassing blunder by WaPo and Benjamin Park on vaccine hesitancy among LDS Church members and what it reveals about our ruling class" at Worthless Thoughts, Sept 21, 2021. They use data from Aug. 18, the week before the Aug. 24 publication of Park's piece, and show just how painfully off this piece was, not just in the reported "less than half" level, but also in the comparison to other states:

The second part of Park’s claim, that Utah was in the “lower half of the nation,” also proves to be wrong. I consulted the Mayo Clinic’s vaccine tracker (also from August 18th) to compare fully vaccinated rates for each state in the three demographic categories provided: under 18, 18-64, and 65+. In the under 18 fully vaccinated rates, Utah is at 14.2% vaccinated, tied for 25th place. For the 18-64 demographic, Utah’s fully vaxxed percentage comes in at 62.3%, at 17th place. And for the 65+ demographic, Utah is at 90.4%, at 20th place.

The older group most likely to have been influenced by the conservative era that Park decries, are the most vaccinated and are in the top 20 states. 

Scholars make mistakes all the time, just like medical experts do. The appropriate scholarly thing is to own up to it and make a retraction.  The appropriate political thing, however, if your purpose is pure politics driven by data-free zeal, is to continue acting with zeal while ignoring the real data because the end justifies the means and "progress" is all that matters. I'm looking forward to seeing whether this particular professor will choose scholarship over politics, now that the blunder has been made known. Here's my wish that he and WaPo will issue a correction that gets at least as much visibility as the error did, though such a thing is rare in the increasingly politicized media. 

The Skabelunds go on to discuss reasons for the lack of scrutiny to facts and data in pieces that attack the Church, and also write much to point out that there are good reasons why intelligent people might be skeptical of the positions our government is taking in the fight against COVID. Some of what they write is similar to the points I made in my recent article, "How to Talk to Concerned Church Members Who Are 'COVID Policy Doubters,'" published Aug. 15 in Meridian Magazine. Please read their full article and consider some of the excellent point they make. It can help us be less divisive and more understanding of those among our ranks who don't yet want the vaccine. Again, I'm vaccinated and encourage people to get it, but I value freedom of choice on this issue.

Park is worried about fundamentalist, evangelical, and right-wing white Americans who seem to be the bogey man for COVID, failing to recognize that the data shows black Americans and some other minorities are among the most vaccine hesitant. And the reasons they have for not being super trustful of the US government should not be ridiculed. Ever heard of the Tuskegee experiment? Park may have accepted the call of the politicians to demonize the vaccine hesitant, but his response is an unfortunate illustration of how some of our own members can harm the cause of Zion by acting in zeal without knowledge, or in this case, zeal without sound data.



 



Friday, September 10, 2021

Medical Tyranny? When Your Government Tells You to Abandon Freedom and Personal Choice, It's Time to Speak Out

Victory Boyd


The mainstream media has largely ignored a chilling story about disrespecting the religious beliefs of a black woman, Grammy Award-winning singer and songwriter Victory Boyd. After being hired by the NFL to sing the national anthem at the season-opening football game on Sept. 9 in Tampa, Florida, she was fired when she stated that she wanted a personal religious exemption from the League's vaccination requirement. The requirement is surely not based on science, for she would be performing in Raymond James Stadium, an open-air venue, where she would not need to be in close contact with the fans and staff, just her entourage. But the NFL refused to honor her request for a religious exemption. Fired. And almost no media coverage (e.g., so sign of the story on CNN.com or CBS.com, though the latter has a story that mentions the release of her song "Open Your Eyes").  

To get a taste of what America missed on Sept. 9, please listen to her sing the most beautiful and touching rendition of the National Anthem that I've ever heard in her video post at Instagram.

But now it's not just the rights of one black woman that will trampled on. President Biden now seeks to protect us all by forcing people to be vaccinated. In his declaration on Thursday, he declared that private businesses now need to mandate vaccinations for their employees. “This is not about freedom or personal choice,” Biden said. “It’s about protecting yourself and those around you.” He's got that right: it's definitely not about freedom.

This comes after prior assurances from the White House and the head of the CDC that vaccine mandates were not within the scope of government plans nor authority. Now it suddenly is, though for some reason, the Administration still recognizes that it can't mandate masks. See "Biden Admits He Can't Mandate Masks. Why Does He Think He Can Mandate Vaccines?" at Reason.org.

Those who speak of personal choice and freedom these days are scorned (unless they are using that language to justify an act of violence against an unwanted prenatal human). I guess I need to come out and say I am willing to be in the scorned group.  If the potential for some minor public benefit trumps personal freedoms and Constitutional restraints on government authority, then freedom has no meaning (landlords, of course, already know this now that the CDC has "discovered" its authority to declare legal and voluntary contracts between renters and landlords essentially void "due to COVID"). When we think of the abuses of government in the past, there has almost always been a public welfare argument to be made:

  • Withholding syphilis medication from the victims of the Tuskegee experiment yielded important medical information that the Public Health Service and its daughter, the CDC, thought were important for medical progress for the good of society. 
  • Forced sterilization of "mentally feeble" citizens would supposedly help improve the overall mental ability of the race. This was not just one of the diabolical extremes of National Socialism in Germany, but the results of laws passed by many states in the US in the 1920s and supported by a ruling of the US Supreme Court in 1927, mentioned below.
  • Putting Japanese Americans into prison camps would allegedly reduce the danger to the rest of us when America was at war with Japan. 
  • Using force and terror to suppress the votes of freed black slaves in the South and rig elections would secure the rights of the white man and Christian society and "fortify" elections and democracy itself. On this, see the highly recommend work on the reign of terror in the South after the Civil War, Stephen Budiansky, The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox (New York: Viking, 2008), which I'll be reviewing here soon.

But vaccination requirements are not without precedent in the US, and even gained the support of the Supreme Court in the 1905 decision, Jacobson v. Massachusetts. The issue there was not exactly that of forced vaccination, but requiring a $5 fee to be paid if one did not get the smallpox vaccine. The Supreme Court ruled that there could be limits on individual freedoms when "reasonable regulations" were needed to secure public health.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, who was a Supreme Court justice who helped create the 1905 Jacobson opinion, built on the Jacobson decision in a later case related to eugenics, which had become politically popular in the 1920s. The following comes from History.com's 2021 article, "When the Supreme Court Ruled a Vaccine Could Be Mandatory":

In a far darker chapter, the Jacobson decision also provided judicial cover for a Virginia law that authorized the involuntary sterilization of “feeble-minded” individuals in state mental institutions. In the 1920s, eugenics enjoyed wide support in scientific and medical circles, and the Supreme Court justices were not immune.

In the infamous 1927 case Buck v. Bell, the Supreme Court accepted the questionable “facts” presented in the lower court cases that a young Virginia woman named Carrie Bell hailed from a long line of “mental defectives” whose offspring were a burden on public welfare.

“The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes (Jacobson v Massachusetts, 197 US 11). Three generations of imbeciles are enough,” wrote Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in a chilling opinion.

The Buck decision opened the floodgates and by 1930, a total of 24 states had passed involuntary sterilization laws and around 60,000 women were ultimately sterilized under these statutes.

Buck v. Bell is the most extreme and barbaric example of the Supreme Court justifying a law in the name of public health,” says Sanders.  [emphasis added]

I think the ethics behind forced vaccination are questionable, especially for a disease far less dangerous than polio and in a climate where the science and ethics of those constantly seeking to expand government power leave huge question marks over the reasonableness of such a mandate. 

While I have been vaccinated, I support the rights and acknowledge the feelings of those who are hesitant about the COVID vaccines. As I have previously explained, they are not necessarily acting out of mere ignorance, but often have legitimate reasons for their positions. Ph.D.s, with whom I share some affinity, are among the most likely to resist the vaccine, and it's not out of pure ignorance.  Forcing them or people with any level of education to lose their jobs because of their choice relative to a new drug (for which it may yet take years to determine its long-term side effects) seems horrifically unfair and yes, contrary to the principles of freedom on which this nation was founded.

There are those who are at risk of adverse affects from the vaccine, and some have even been warned by their doctors that they should not get the vaccine for their own health. Will many of them now lose their jobs thanks to this sweeping, unjustified mandate?

There are those, perhaps particularly in the relatively less-vaccinated black community, who have sincere and thoughtful reasons for not wanting to take a vaccine that has not had the normal years of safety testing. Their reasons may be based on distrust of government, which was a legitimate reason for vaccine hesitancy expressed by many Democratic politicians when Trump was president, and may be a legitimate concern regardless of who is president, perhaps especially for those who recall the tragedy of the morally corrupt and vicious Tuskegee experiment that harmed many black Americans, an experiment that was supported by the CDC. 

Some, such as Victory Boyd, may have personal religious reasons for not wanting this particular vaccine, reasons which may be influenced by the rapidly developed nature of the vaccine and the sense that long-term safety testing has not had time to be fully completed. 

Some may have basic scientific objections such as the inadequacy of testing so far and the need for long-term evaluation of the effects of the vaccine relative to large control groups of unvaccinated people in order to properly assess long-term risks (if everyone is vaccinated, there will be no control group and no easy way to determine if the vaccine may be responsible for elevated cancer rates or other issues in years to come). The concern over safety is not a groundless concern. Indeed, if we are going to learn anything from the polio vaccinations of the past, it should be the very real risks of harm when a vaccine is rushed to market. The Cutter incident resulted in many unnecessary polio victims. Then, later batches of the polio vaccine were frequently contaminated with Simian Virus 40 (SV40), a virus from primates that has the characteristics of a cancer-causing virus, though it is still unclear if it has caused increased cancer in vaccinated humans (the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine has said that more detailed work is needed to determine if cancer did increase because of the vaccine). You can read about both the Cutter issue and the SV40 issue on the CDC's page that seeks to assure us that vaccines are usually safe (a proposition I generally agree with): see "Historical Vaccine Safety Concerns." 

There are also some who may have an irrational fear of vaccines, just as some may have an irrational fear of germs or, more commonly now, an irrational fear of the unvaccinated. But if we presume that we can override someone else's right to say "my body, my life" and decline the vaccine, can we also decide that they are too deplorable to have children and thus mandate sterilization? The Supreme Court once might have agreed, but that doesn't make it right. There is irrational anger being stirred up by our government and other governments (Australia comes to mind) against the dread threat of vaccinated people, even when over 70% of us have been vaccinated and many of the remainder may already have natural immunity. There is absolutely no recognition from the authorities in our government about the beneficial effect of natural immunity. To some, that makes it look like it's at least partly about political power, forcing people to get the government jab or else as a step toward expanding an avaricious governments' power over its subjects.

Given the actual data for the COVID virus, the risk that an unvaccinated person poses to the vaccinated seems quite small. Is it worth sweeping intrusions against liberty and choice? Why do we have leaders who wold shut down so much of our society for so long over a threat not vastly more dangerous than that of cancer, heart disease, and automobile accidents? We do we tolerate lockdowns that hinder the future our our children, vastly increase suicide and mental health harms, exacerbate heart disease and other health issues, without weighing the dramatic costs against the illusory gains? 

We need to recognize that everything comes with risk. Your alleged right to travel by driving your car down the road puts me at risk when I am a driver or a pedestrian. Your alleged right to drink alcohol puts me at risk when you drive or operate machinery. Your alleged right to eat lots of sugar, fat, or fast food puts me at risk because your future bad health may use up the hospital bed I need after I exercise my right to go skydiving. Your alleged right to live in a home made with wood puts me at risk because it could catch on fire and trigger a forest fire that threatens my well-being while living in my enlightened but rather dim and damp fireproof cave. As one of the few troglodytes willing to speak out, I'd like to say that freedom and personal choice are still vital for our society and for all mankind. We need to stand against medical tyranny and for the freedom of people to choose what they will allow to be injected into their bodies, even if we don't agree with their decision or their reasons. 

After being fired by the NFL for sticking to her religious values and declining an unwanted injection, Victory Boyd, according to Digital Music News, said “I’ve made peace with not being able to sing the National Anthem tomorrow for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But I have not and will not make peace with the re-emergence of segregation and discrimination. This is not okay and it’s about time that we say so.” She further explained her position in what I understand was the first news site to report her story:

“The Bible admonishes Christians to appreciate their bodies as being sacred and a temple of the Holy Spirit and to not participate in things that can defile the body or render the body dysfunctional.

“I am in prayer to make sure that the Lord guides me into the right decision concerning receiving an unproven injection with artificial properties that can potentially have a long-term effect on my reproductive health.

“If I want to take the vaccine, the decision will be between myself, my doctor, and my God. At this point, the Spirit of God is leading me to take a stand for freedom of choice.”

Thank you, Victory Boyd, for thoughtfully expressing your desire to make a decision for yourself and about your body (not the body of anyone else) based on your religious values. Your decision may differ from mine, but I believe you should have that right and that the NFL was unreasonable, perhaps even discriminatory, in requiring you to be vaccinated in order to stand alone on an open field and sing a song to America that reminds us of the need to stand together for freedom and liberty.  May we stand for freedom and against medical tyranny.

Update, 9/12/2021: While standing for the right of people to choose their own medical treatment, let me reiterate the need for more of us to be vaccinated. I'm vaccinated and have considered the data carefully, leading me to believe it is safe and effective. President Nelson's encouragement in favor of vaccination is wise counsel for the general population and I hope you'll consider it. Vaccination may be especially critical for those of you in vulnerable groups, such those who are elderly, overweight, have impaired lungs or other serious health issues. COVID is a serious illness for many, and if you are in those groups, you could easily need to be hospitalized. 

Some less vaccinated regions like Alabama are facing a crisis now as ICU beds are at capacity (some counties in northern Idaho and many other places are also struggling). A man just died in Alabama when he was turned away from numerous overwhelmed hospitals, unable to get treatment for a heart condition. That could have been prevented if more people had been vaccinated. It also could have been prevented if more people reduced their weight, improved their diet, exercised more, quit drinking and smoking, got better nutrition, and stayed off skateboards -- all problem areas that, like inadequate vaccination, could be solved by the use of force in the name of saving our lives. Rather than override the principles of liberty that our nation was founded upon and turn our nation into a police/nanny state, I prefer that we maintain our republic and use wise counsel to encourage wise behavior. 

We obviously want this crisis to be over (nearly all of us, anyway) and get back to our lives, but this is not the time to be casual about the risk of infection. Consider vaccination, which is proving fairly effective. Vaccinated or not, maintain care in terms of hand washing, avoiding densely packed gatherings, etc., and respect requirements for masking, even if you understand that mask efficacy is very low. 

A problem, of course, is that the wisdom of our government's counsel to be vaccinated is obscured in the minds of many by actions that reflect bad faith. A few days ago a sincere journalist asked a reasonable question in a White House press conference, wondering why American citizens are subject to a vaccine mandate but the numerous undocumented migrants entering our nation are not. In response, Jen Psaki snapped, "That is correct" and immediately went to another journalist for the next question. This looks like bad faith. It does not reflect the attitude of people who feel they have been asked to represent and serve the American people, but rather seems to reflect the attitude that it's our duty to humbly serve and obey them and stop asking questions. 

I've seen test data suggesting that as many as 20% of the undocumented walking across our border are COVID positive. Many southern states like Florida and Alabama have been sent large numbers of the newcomers. If COVID is such an existential threat that American liberties must be suspended and companies must be forced to terminate the vaccine hesitant (even if they already have natural immunity!), how is it possible that our government doesn't seal the border to ensure that only the COVID-free are brought in, and that they are at least encouraged or incentivized to be vaccinated? Those who see this discrepancy can't help but question the motives of our leaders, even when they give what normally should be seen as wise and thoughtful counsel. But I hope we can look past these issues and recognize that, no matter what the failures of our politicians might be,  the vaccines themselves are safe and effective, and by being vaccinated, we might save our own life and perhaps the lives of others. 



Monday, August 23, 2021

A Google Earth View of a Candidate for Bountiful, Khor Kharfot on Wadi Sayq

Here is a beautiful view from Google Earth of a leading candidate for the Book of Mormon site Bountiful, Khor Kharfot, the fertile inlet at the end of a long wadi (valley or ravine where water can flow in the rainy season), Wadi Sayq, in Oman. It is at a location nearly due east of the candidate for Nahom in Nihm tribal lands, about 25 miles north of Sanaa in Yemen. Khor Kharfot, a site I've discussed frequently on this blog, is one of the most fertile spots on the eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, boasting the largest fresh water lagoon in the entire Arabian Peninsula and a truly a place of abundance. It is a site of ongoing research and conservation work, thanks in part to the Khor Kharfot Foundation to the early work of the now defunct Khor Karfot Foundation. 

Thanks to Warren Aston for the link to this view of Khor Kharfot. 

Click to enlarge. Any of you been there? It's a goal of mine to visit Oman and Yemen.



Saturday, August 14, 2021

How to Talk to Concerned Church Members Who Are "COVID Policy Doubters" (CPDs)

Some Latter-day Saints, probably only a minority, were frustrated with a recent request from Church leaders. Some of the frustration might be lessened after carefully considering the wording of the very brief First Presidency message of Aug. 12, 2021, with the title "The First Presidency Urges Latter-day Saints to Wear Face Masks When Needed and Get Vaccinated Against COVID-19." As a vaccinated and pro-vaccine member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, today I want to share some thoughts from the surprisingly diverse community of Latter-day Saints who struggle with some COVID policies and who may be struggling with the Aug. 12 First Presidency Message. In today's society,  COVID Policy Doubters (CPDs) are widely dismissed, even ridiculed, and assumed to be selfish or ignorant in their views and their unwillingness to comply with policies from vaunted experts. I feel they deserve to be understood a little better. My aim is to help those who are puzzled by CPDs to recognize that their concerns may be driven by something other than ignorance, immaturity, stubbornness, or a foolish fear of all vaccines. I am not asking you to accept any of their perspectives, but to be able to talk to them by first understanding how seemingly faithful and intelligent people can also be mistrustful of government and be COVID policy doubters.

First, to my CPD friends, please understand that this Aug. 12 First Presidency Statement is a good-faith effort to help us navigate temporary risks that are around us. Let's exercise patience and understanding in  response.  And you may also be grateful to see that the statement did not call for endless lockdowns, vaccine passports, mandatory vaccinations, mandatory masking, further forfeiture of property rights of landlords, shutting down schools again, the closure of churches and synagogues, or trillions of dollars of spending with shady 3,000-page laws packed with corrupt pork that could impoverish the country -- all issues that are concerns to some CPDs. There truly have been some terrible abuses of power that have occurred in the name of "standing together" against COVID. At the same time, there are some things we should worry about, in spite of the bad faith of some parties that may have exploited COVID fears for their own benefit or who acted out of ignorance. Many more have died than a bad flu season would have caused. Now new variants can have unpredictable risks. Yes, our species has lived with viruses and viral mutation for countless generations without the need to shut everything down, and I stand with you in concern about the serious long-term health and economic consequences of lockdowns. But those concerns may fly away when one's family faces the potential tragedy that this strange disease can bring. I hope you'll keep considering the evidence related to vaccination options and be open to it if there aren't clear health factors putting you at risk (consulting with your doctor would be wise here). But I will respect that as your choice. I also hope you'll see the First Presidency Statement as one based on a real concern for our well-being, and recognize that there may yet be more serious health risks in the near future for which these added precautions may be a blessing on the whole for our congregations.

The gist of the First Presidency Statement was simple and reasonable: "To limit exposure to these viruses, we urge the use of face masks in public meetings whenever social distancing is not possible. To provide personal protection from such severe infections, we urge individuals to be vaccinated." So in public meetings, if people will necessarily be very close to each other, our leaders will urge masking. Individuals are urged to be vaccinated for their own protection. This is really just asking us to reduce risk appropriately. In fact, with the currently increase in cases and hospitalizations in many parts of the country, this may be the right time to increase our guard for a while. I hope it's a brief period, but let's be patient and faithful through this. 

The First Presidency's short, positive message should not be interpreted to override the personal health issues that may make vaccines or even mask wearing inappropriate for some, including infants and young children, pregnant women, those with certain heart or kidney conditions, some with severe asthma or other respiratory problems, those with certain allergies or skin conditions, etc. See the WHO's guidelines on who should be vaccinated (I apologize if this WHO document does not align with some CDC guidelines or government goals pushing for vaccination of teenagers and ultimately younger children). In any case, it's still your choice, something that may be discussed between you and your doctor but not with the whole ward, and personally I believe that we should respect the medical privacy of others in this matter.

I made my choice and have been vaccinated. I don't mind sharing that bit of my medical history. So far, I think that was wise for an older guy like me who could be at elevated risk with COVID, but I can't guarantee that I won't regret my decision in a few years as we get more data from these experimental vaccines that have been rushed past some of the normal hurdles of long-term safety testing. I think COVID vaccinations are a good idea for many, but I can understand the reasons why some might not want that. Sadly, I think too many of our members have been conditioned to be angry at the unvaccinated and the CPDs. 

Now I'd like to address those who are concerned about the CPDs among us. I'll try to share some glimpses into the wide range of CPD attitudes in hopes that there might be better communication and a touch of understanding. We need communication and understanding, not anger and judgement for those who doubt, even if we may disagree with some of their positions and personal choices.

One Slur Won't Fit All: The Diversity of CPDs

First I must explain that CPDs in the Church and in our communities are surprisingly diverse. Some loud voices make it sound like the CPDs and the unvaccinated (two related by not identical groups) are all less-educated white Republicans from the lowest caste in our society known as the "deplorables." Here I would urge you to consider the data or at least talk to some of the CPDs in your congregation and understand who they are and why they are concerned. The stereotype that the "resistance" is only from the less educated is based on propaganda, not data, in my opinion. A new study from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh gives us some insight into who the unvaccinated are. It's only a pre-print that has not yet gone through peer review, so be cautious, but the survey data may still be helpful and resonates with what I've seen. See Wendy C. King, Max Rubinstein, Alex Reinhart, and Robin J. Mejia, "Time trends and factors related to COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy from January-May 2021 among US adults: Findings from a large-scale national survey," MedRxiv.org, July 23, 2021, https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2021.07.20.21260795v1, with the full-text PDF at https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2021.07.20.21260795v1.full.pdf. One view of the data related to education is provided at Unherd.com, showing that the group most likely to be vaccine-hesitant are those with Ph.D.s. But it's a u-shaped curve, with high hesitancy among the least educated and also among the most-educated. In my experience, regardless of education, the CPDs I've talked to are typically able to articulate reasonable explanations for their views. (Distrust and fear of adverse side effects are not groundless, in my opinion, though I may disagree with how they are weighing risks.)

In terms of ethnicity, the charts at the end of the Carnegie Mellon study show vaccine hesitancy is not unique to whites. Several age groups of Blacks and Native Americans, for example, are quite hesitant to receive COVID vaccines and may align in other ways with CPDs. That includes African American citizens as well African immigrants, a group that is well represented in my part of Wisconsin and which has become an important part of the social life my wife and I enjoy here, with many friends now from DR Congo and neighboring countries. 

A related story from the New York Times is "Why Only 28 Percent of Young Black New Yorkers Are Vaccinated: As the Delta variant courses through New York City, many young Black New Yorkers remain distrustful of the vaccine."  The age 18 to 44 group there has only a 28% vaccination rate, "compared with 48 percent of Latino residents and 52 percent of white residents in that age group." Mistrust of government is a factor in this.

Here I would ask for understanding of what I think may be very rational bases for mistrust of government. For example, for minority Americans and immigrants aware of the tragedy of the Tuskeegee experiment, how can we expect all of them to now trust the government when it asks them to take an expressly experimental drug? As a refresher, here's the opening paragraph from Wikipedia's article on the Tuskegee experiment:

The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male (informally referred to as the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment or Tuskegee Syphilis Study) was an ethically abusive study conducted between 1932 and 1972 by the United States Public Health Service (PHS) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The purpose of this study was to observe the natural history of untreated syphilis. Although the African-American men who participated in the study were told that they were receiving free health care from the federal government of the United States, they were not.

The study of 399 men infected with syphilis and other uninfected men continued to 1972. Contrary to promises, no treatment was ever provided to the men who thought they were being treated, even though the safe, effective, and inexpensive treatment of penicillin had been available since the 1940s. This would adversely affect them, their wives, their children, and other. And who was behind this cruel abuse of ethics and human rights? The Public Health Service and the CDC. So if minorities or anybody else chooses to be skeptical of the CDC now, it's not totally irrational. There's a precedent for justified skepticism.

The CDC also has a page on the tragedy of the Tuskegee experiment which provides much of the same information as the Wikipedia page, though it's not as clear there that the CDC was involved, apart from a note in a timeline that the CDC called for support of the study in 1969. Nowhere is the complicity of the CDC in that study clearly acknowledged. Shouldn't it be, along with an apology? Have they left something out from the data they are sharing about that terrible aspect of US history? Again, I apologize for asking questions that may not align with CDC guidelines, but when I ponder the possible concerns that some Blacks may have when it comes to government policies and experimental treatments, I can understand why there might be some rational hesitancy.

It's not just the unsavory track record of our own government that can cause concern. Immigrants who have come to the US as refugees from dangerous countries have often suffered greatly because of the corruption and failures of government abroad. Trusting and relying on government can get you killed in some countries. They see the US as a much better land of opportunity with better systems, but if they are still hesitant to comply with proclamations of leaders they don't yet know and trust, can we blame them? I didn't blame Kamala Harris when, in her Vice Presidential debate, she expressed concern about taking a vaccine from a government she didn't trust. Many others in her party expressed similar concerns in 2020 when it was the Trump vaccine in the pipeline. That's the pipeline that gave us the vaccines we have now. If it was OK to doubt then, is it so clearly evil to doubt now?

Again, I encourage people to vaccinate, but given that there are risks to any procedure, people should have the right to weigh the risks for themselves and make their own choice. And discussion of risks or posts of adverse reactions should not be summarily censored, as has happened on Twitter and elsewhere. Science requires robust discussion and transparency. Censorship can exacerbate mistrust, at least for those who notice it. In any event, trust or the lack of it is a reasonable factor to consider. Lack of trust in government is not necessarily irrational now, nor was it necessarily irrational in the previous administration.  To compel trust or to compel people to accept an injection from a source they don't trust would be to desecrate the principles that make this nation great.  But let's dig a little deeper now to understand why mistrust in our government's COVID policies have become so strong for some people.

A Common CPD Trait: The Perception of Bad Faith in the CDC and Beyond

Business leaders, community leaders, and leaders of congregations and churches often have experience interacting with political leaders, whether at the local, state, or national level. The interactions often include some aspect of negotiation, seeking to influence and find support for important causes.  In such talks, it is natural to see the good in the other party and to assume that even when they hold different views, that they are basically good people acting in good faith. This generosity of thought makes the world a more civil place and tends to pervade my particular church. Unfortunately, there are also times when the brutal reality of bad faith in others needs to be faced.

Just as those who doubt some COVID policies may be more educated and more diverse than is commonly assumed, their motives also may not be as simple or infantile as their opponents suggest. The growing distrust in government among some people goes far beyond "sour grapes" over a lost election. Many CPDs have sincere questions about the approach of government and media to the COVID pandemic. Tensions among these doubters may be much higher than local leaders recognize. They may be faithful members who seem to follow rules from local leaders on masking, social distancing, curtailing of activities, etc., in spite of their misgivings. But they may now be increasingly troubled by those rules, perhaps reaching a breaking point for some. A few have decided to simply stop attending meetings if they will be pressured to wear a mask or receive an unwanted injection. Some may face particular health challenges that could increase the risk of adverse effects from vaccination, while perhaps a greater number may object as a matter of principle or for other reasons.

While there is a spectrum of concerns among the doubters I am discussing, a surprisingly common aspect among the more educated CPDs, in my opinion, is the perception of bad faith in the CDC and broader federal government. This comes as a surprise to many whose perception of current events comes largely from mainstream media and their social media feeds. Social media posts that criticize the CDC or make statements contrary to CDC policies are often deleted or otherwise hidden from the eyes of other in the name of preventing harmful misinformation and our modern media tends to be enthusiastically on board with most policies and pronouncements of our current administration. I am taking a risk in even discussing why some CPDs see bad faith in the government. Seriously, bad faith in one of our most trusted organizations? "What's wrong with these CPD lunatics?" you might ask.

Please allow me to offer a different way of looking at things -- or rather, a different direction. Let's begin by looking south to see why some CDPs, when it comes to trust in their government, have already crossed their own Rubicon, or, perhaps, their own Rio Grande. 

First, Look South: A Simple Act That Can Affect CPD Perspectives

Take a moment to reflect on the pandemic and our nation in a different light. For many months now, we have been asked to make sacrifices of many kinds to cope with the overwhelming dangers of COVID. Many of us lost jobs, some lost businesses that were shut down with what sometimes seemed arbitrary decisions that favored the biggest or most connected businesses, many children lost a year or more of education, many lost the ability to visit dying relatives, we couldn't visit friends or get together at church, and now we are even being told that parents should social distance from their own kids. Travel was shut down. To this day, it's nearly impossible for US citizens to simply go across the border and return to the US to visit family or friends in low-COVID Canada. Most American citizens were good sports about all this sacrifice in the name of slowing the spread, flattening the curve, and helping the nation in a time of unusual peril. It was supposed to be for two weeks. Then four. Then eight. Now it's been over 18 months and it looks like the sacrifices must go on forever, along with an incredible expansion in spending by government and a similar expansion in their power. All for our good because the crisis is so severe that every means possible must be taken to avert it. 

One's attitude about all this sacrifice can change quickly by simply looking in one direction: south, to the massive border crisis that receives very little attention from our government and its allies in the media.

Take a look at our southern border. What you may not have heard from your news sources is that COVID is now raging among the massive increase in undocumented immigrants surging across the southern border, yet they are often being released into or allowed into our nation without being subject to the same COVID restrictions the rest of us face, and even known or suspected positive cases are being allowed to enter and stay. See, for example, "Illegal immigrants being sent to major Texas cities without COVID tests" from the New York Post. How can a porous border without strict efforts to keep COVID from entering the United States be squared with the sacrifices being asked of the rest of us if doing whatever is needed to fight COVID really is so essential for this nation? To ignore sick people walking freely across the border just might point to one terrible conclusion in the minds of many who read or see what is happening on our southern border: our government may not be acting in good faith. It can easily appear that they are either allowing a deadly disease to spread without concern, or that they aren't really worried about the disease as much as they are about politics. Either way, bad faith seems to be involved. But maybe that's wrong. I'm open to other ideas. If you have a better explanation, please share it here so we can help doubters to overcome one of the biggest factors stirring doubts. But at least understand that for those who have seen the border crisis unfold and the seemingly willful neglect of a potentially significant route for COVID entry into the US, it's not irrational to believe that the government's use of the COVID crisis to justify bigger spending and bigger power grabs may not be driven by a sincere desire to just follow the science. It smells of bad faith, or at least it can to an educated person looking closely at the southern border. 

Next, Look East to Provincetown and India

A few weeks ago millions of Americans breathed a sigh of relief when the CDC announced that we could back down on masking guidelines. Then recently, the CDC leaked information to the New York Times about shocking new data indicating that a return to tough measures was needed. Then the CDC study was released which gives data for an outbreak in Provincetown, Massachusetts during July 3 to 17, showing that many "breakthrough" cases of COVID in vaccinated people had occurred and that the frightening delta variant was highly involved. This was said to justify new guidelines for more masking. We were warned by the CDC that just being vaccinated is not enough, for the study shows that vaccinated people can still transmit the virus. The CDC's Aug. 6, 2021 report on this outbreak says:

On July 27, CDC recommended that all persons, including those who are fully vaccinated, should wear masks in indoor public settings in areas where COVID-19 transmission is high or substantial.* Findings from this investigation suggest that even jurisdictions without substantial or high COVID-19 transmission might consider expanding prevention strategies, including masking in indoor public settings regardless of vaccination status, given the potential risk of infection during attendance at large public gatherings that include travelers from many areas with differing levels of transmission. [emphasis mine]

The study indicates that 469 cases of COVID-19 erupted in Provincetown, and that 74% or 346 of these cases were in fully vaccinated people. Of those, 274 (79%) were symptomatic. "Among five COVID-19 patients who were hospitalized, four were fully vaccinated; no deaths were reported." The study reports without commentary that 85% of those who had COVID were male, a seemingly unusual occurrence. What is also not reported is how many people were in Provincetown, a town with a population of about 3,000. Were there nearly 500 cases among just 3,000 people? Or was the denominator much greater? 

The study actually provides what could be viewed as some good news that seems to have been ignored by the media and the CDC: while the vaccine is not 100% effective, meaning that there is still some risk of getting COVID, as we have always known, very few people needed to be hospitalized and nobody died. The vaccine is working. But yes, delta is highly transmissible and is spreading, and sadly, this will lead to further deaths, especially among the elderly and those with other serious health issues.

What the CDC didn't share in their pronouncements about the Provincetown report or the report itself, a report that was used to change COVID recommendations for all of us, is that what happened in Provincetown was unrepresentative of typical conditions in the United States. It was an extreme outlier, in fact. The study of this anomaly cannot be wisely and reasonably used to make blanket policies for the rest of the nation. 

As a neutral USA Today article notes about the Provincetown event, "Although not mentioned in the [CDC] report, the outbreak overlapped with July Fourth weekend and 'Bear Week,' Provincetown’s annual gathering of gay men; 85% of the identified infections were in males. In the summer, the town’s population swells to approximately 60,000 people." Provincetown is a famous party town, especially in the gay community. Gay men from all over the country gather to party at this time, causing a small town of 3,000 people swells to about 60,000, many of whom are packed into bars and restaurants. There's a lot of socializing going on, including plenty of kissing, one of the best ways to spread a respiratory virus. Crowds packed into small enclosures in old buildings with old ventilation systems coupled with kissing and romance in the air, along with plenty of viruses, is a perfect storm for spreading COVID. Speaking of storms, rain during the time period in question also kept a lot of these people indoors, exacerbating the risk of spreading disease.

Here I do not wish to propagate old stereotypes of gay men being irresponsible. My impression is that they are highly vaccinated, more than the US average. In fact, I just checked and one recent survey from July 2021 shows 92% of those in the LGBTQ+ community have had at least one vaccine shot for COVID. That's great news. But the bad news is that CDC failed to let Americans know that the outbreak in Provincetown occurred under unusual conditions in a rather unusual town. 

Many sources reported the study as if it showed vaccines aren't working, for 74% of the COVID cases were among the vaccinated. But first note that the visitors to Provincetown were probably even more highly vaccinated than the highly vaccinated locals. If, for example, the 50,000 or so tourists that may have been partying at this time were 100% vaccinated, and if the only locals who left their home were also vaccinated, could there have been an outbreak? Yes, of course, for vaccination does not prevent all infection, but according to the CDC, may reduce the risk of COVID by about 90% and even though some vaccinated people can still get infected, the vaccination is valuable in reducing the severity of the infection. So if we had only 100% vaccinated people partying in Provincetown, some could still get the disease -- and guess what the statistics would then show? We could have headlines like "100% of those infected were vaccinated!" Should that be shocking? No, it would be fully expected. If there were 60,000 people sharing close quarters with occasional sharing of infection during the peak of Bear week in Provincetown, having 469 cases break out means less than 1% were infected by being present under ideal conditions for spreading the disease, and only 1% of that 1% (a total of less than 0.01%) ended up being hospitalized. And again, zero deaths. For this, we need to panic? 

The real number of cases may be higher because many without symptoms may not have been tested and some who were sick may have already left the area and returned home before showing symptoms or being tested. It's possible the number of infections may have been several times higher than the reported 469, but again, as far as we know, there were no deaths. This is good news. The fact that some of the many vaccinated people present got COVID is completely expected. But for some of us, the CDC's use of this study and its failure to give the context was irresponsible, and suggest that the goal was justifying an agenda rather than simply being transparent and following the science. Yes, to some CPDs, that's a sign of bad faith. 

The CDC also used the Provincetown study to argue that the "viral load" of vaccinated people who get COVID is the same as those who aren't vaccinated, meaning that they can be just as effective in transmitting the disease since they are producing large numbers of virus. This was an important part of the  narrative spread by the CDC, but it's an justified statement based on the study -- though I wonder if any mainstream journalists noticed that.  

Here's what the CDC study actually reported: 

Finally, Ct value [the cycle count required in PCR testing to get measurable evidence of the virus]  obtained with SARS-CoV-2 qualitative RT-PCR diagnostic tests might provide a crude correlation to the amount of virus present in a sample and can also be affected by factors other than viral load.††† Although the assay used in this investigation was not validated to provide quantitative results, there was no significant difference between the Ct values of samples collected from breakthrough cases and the other cases. This might mean that the viral load of vaccinated and unvaccinated persons infected with SARS-CoV-2 is also similar. However, microbiological studies are required to confirm these findings. [emphasis mine]

A speculative possibility that was not confirmed and needs further work to see if it's true was elevated to a shocking "fact" to be spread across the nation, again, without context. Already it looks like there might be some good reasons to doubt the assumptions the CDC is making, especially in light of a Singapore study, as reported by Jacob Sullum at Reason.com in "The Evidence Cited by the CDC Does Not Show That Vaccinated and Unvaccinated COVID-19 Carriers Are Equally Likely To Transmit the Virus," Aug. 4, 2021.  Also see Sullum's related July 29 article.

Here's how CNN conveyed the message about viral load: 

A new study shows the Delta Covid-19 variant produced similar amounts of virus in vaccinated and unvaccinated people if they get infected – illustrating a key motivation behind the federal guidance that now recommends most fully vaccinated Americans wear masks indoors.

Experts say that vaccination makes it less likely that you’ll catch Covid-19 in the first place – but for those who do, this data suggests they could have a similar tendency to spread it as unvaccinated folks.

“High viral loads suggest an increased risk of transmission and raised concern that, unlike with other variants, vaccinated people infected with Delta can transmit the virus,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a statement Friday.

Don't blame CNN for misunderstanding the study, though. The Director of the CDC herself spoke about "high viral loads" as if that's what the Provincetown study examined. Here's her official statement from July 30, 2021:

Today, some of those data were published in CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), demonstrating that Delta infection resulted in similarly high SARS-CoV-2 viral loads in vaccinated and unvaccinated people. High viral loads suggest an increased risk of transmission and raised concern that, unlike with other variants, vaccinated people infected with Delta can transmit the virus. This finding is concerning and was a pivotal discovery leading to CDC’s updated mask recommendation. The masking recommendation was updated to ensure the vaccinated public would not unknowingly transmit virus to others, including their unvaccinated or immunocompromised loved ones.

Setting national policy based on speculative assumptions isn't following the science, it's dragging the science with a chain -- or at least an educated person could feel that way. They could feel that what the CDC did with the Provincetown study was anything but scientific. They could feel that it was manipulation to achieve a political goal, an act of bad faith. I don't think that conclusion can be dismissed as entirely irrational.

The apparent bad faith was also manifest in the other study, a study from India that the CDC relied on to justify masking and fear for the vaccinated. They cited a study in India that was actually rejected by peer review and involved a vaccine that is not used in the US. Using a rejected study without mentioning its status does not engender trust.

Other CDC errors have contributed to the sense among some that the CDC is not always acting in good faith. One example is the recent claim from the CDC that the delta variant is as contagious as chicken pox, which even got rare push back from NPR. These errors always seem to be in the same direction: the direction of increasing fear, alarm, and justification for government spending and doing more.


From an Aug. 11 NPR Story Shared by WKU FM in Kentucky

Finally, for those who still think CPDs are ignorant for believing that the CDC might not always act in good faith, what are we to make of the CDC's utterly unconstitutional moratorium on the ability of property owners to enforce contracts and evict people who don't pay rent? It can be argued that this overrides the basic premise of rule of law and is a step closer to the Cultural Revolution than the principles of liberty this nation was founded upon. Yes, it sounds nice to suddenly give people free rent for a while at the expense of someone else. But the people who work and save to obtain rental property are people also, and what right, one might ask, does a public health agency have to tell people what they can or cannot do with their rental property? Even after the Supreme Court told the current administration that this was wrong, the response was to go ahead and extend the moratorium because by the time it could be fought in the courts, they'd get what they wanted already. That's contrary to the rule of law, contrary to the principle of upholding the Constitution and especially the Bill of Rights, and a cynical expression of a willingness to act in bad faith. If they'll do that, can we trust them to act with the best of faith in anything else? Again, that's at least the position that a rational person who has read the Constitution and the news of the CDC's actions could take. If politics can come above the rule of law, can it come above the reign of science? I don't think such concerns are irrational. 

Talking to CPDs About Masks

There may be a legitimate debate about the various positions our officials have taken regarding masks and the use or abuse of science in taking the position, but I choose to wear a mask where it is required and believe that that's the right thing to do for most of us. I also think that's the approach most Latter-day Saints and even most CPDs will take in light of the recent First Presidency Statement. But it would still be helpful, in my opinion, to understand that the objections many CPDs may have to US masking policies may not be based on selfishness or immaturity.

When we have recommendations that seem contradictory, such as government declarations that masks are not effective except for trained medical professionals, followed later by declarations that we all must wear masks or maybe even two masks, all apparently driven at times by politics and not science, it's hard for CPDs to feel much reverence for the vacillating experts. When numbers are used in deceptive ways, as happened in Illinois recently to justify mask mandates, trust in government officials is not strengthened. If officials are just following the science, why be tricky? There's a good article that by Jeffrey Anderson at City Journal on the questionable science and contradictory stances related to masks mandates that reflects the concerns of some CPDs. Before we assume that mask-hesitant CPDs, including vaccinated CPDs,  are deniers of science and spreaders of death who need to shamed, it would be wise to read it and at least understand some of the science-related and logical issues that many CPDs might have. I won't link to that article directly due to the repercussions that might be inflicted for sharing masking information based on peer-reviewed studies that don't comply with the policy of the moment from the CDC. Instead, please use this TinyUrl shortcut to a trusted source, the CDC, and be careful not to alter the shortcut by, say, foolishly deleting the trailing number. The trusted CDC article can be accessed at the shortcut https://tinyurl.com/masking-science0. Keep that zero at the end, or else! 

In talking with what may be a minority of CPDs who disagree with the need to mask at church, I think it would be helpful to first read some of the scientific and well-reasoned critiques that have been made of US policies and the behaviors of our leaders. By doing so, you may better understand that for some CPDs, again, there is a question of bad faith that may be part of their concerns. Recognizing and acknowledging  the rational basis for their concerns can be a useful way to begin a conversation aimed at understanding their issues and helping them to also be aware of your concerns for your congregation. I believe that many or at least some CPDs who initially seem non-compliant can become more willing to accept policies for your congregation through meaningful dialog and loving, respectful encouragement, and perhaps a perspective of respect for their views can be used to coax those who disagree angrily with the CPDs to be more patient. But please understand that there may be legitimate concerns and sometimes genuine health or other issues that make masking a challenge. I hope you can work with them, be accommodating when possible, and find a way to heel the deep fractures that may arise between members of the Church over COVID controversies. 

How Do We Know Which Government Recommendations Are the "Wise and Thoughtful" Ones?

Finally, I wish to address what may be the most challenging wording in the First Presidency Statement. Some CPDs might have been most concerned about the bold sentence under the title of the statement: "We can win this war if everyone will follow the wise and thoughtful recommendations of medical experts and government leaders.” I must explain that I can fully agree with this sentence. We should all be willing to follow "the wise and thoughtful recommendations of medical experts and government leaders." But which ones are wise and thoughtful, which are purely political, and which are wrong, deceptive, dangerous, or in bad faith? I personally think we should initially assume that policies are issued in good faith, but if there are serious scientific, logical, or ethical issues that are evident or later uncovered, it would seem reasonable to at least be able to question those policies. I recognize that such a stance may be viewed as dangerous and subversive in some countries, but in the systems we still have (so I hope) in the United States, good citizens ought to be able to raise such questions and push back through legal and appropriate means. 

Of course, when the statement was written, it was likely considering specific recent recommendations, such as masking in high-risk areas, a recommendation which I think is wise. But the recommendations we receive from local, state, and federal authorities are not always consistent and may vary from place to place and over time. We need to exercise some degree of judgment in dealing with the policies and proclamations of mortals.

I don't think it's possible for us to assume that all government policies are inherently wise and thoughtful. In fact, we would fail in our duties as citizens if we took that passive, apathetic attitude. Sadly, as we read the Book of Mormon and its many warnings about the "works of darkness" and "secret combinations" in their day and ours, we must be at least aware that there may be occasionally be some bad actors who, as in the days of the Nephites and Jaredites, rise to positions of power in society, often seeking to ruthlessly expand their power and control. Our Founding Fathers were highly mistrustful of power in the hands of men, and rightly so, based on the lessons of history. They sought to limit the power that any one man or group of men could exert through strict limits and abundant checks and balances, many of which have been eroded in recent decades. Some CPDs are worried about the abuse of power by government officials, at the local, state, and national levels. There may be a need for healthy skepticism when it comes to the deeds of mortals these days. I'm not saying we need to suspect "secret combinations" at every turn, but really that we must be aware of human failings, whether it is lust for power, greed, conflicts of interest, or just plain old bad decision making.

We don't believe prophets to be infallible, and this may be a good time to recognize that politicians and their allies given the political keys of public health power may be equally or more fallible than the Lord's prophets and apostles.  So what do we do when officials and vaunted experts aren't always "wise and thoughtful" or when we have good evidence that their recommendations are contradictory, politicized, incoherent, or not based on credible science? Must we treat their proclamations as infallible?

Of course, nobody is infallible on everything, but are our public leaders at least relatively infallible when it comes to COVID policies? And if so, when? When they tell us masks don't work for us ordinary people, or that we absolutely must mask? And is it their words that are infallible, or their actions (thinking of the steady stream of elites who tell us to social distance and mask, and are then seen attending restaurants or crowded parties without masks)? There may be moments of infallibility in there, but for CPDs, the contradictions, the steadily shifting goalposts, and the seemingly endless excuses for why politicians must hold on to and expand the power they have grabbed raises certain doubts. If their proclamations, however contradictory or unscientific, become the law of the land,  CPDs who are faithful Latter-day Saints will likely seek to respect the law in spite of objecting to it, consistent with their duties as citizens and Article of Faith #12, but they may also wish to use the democratic process to push back in some appropriate way. That may be a sound path even for those who are comfortable with the policies we've been given so far.

To be good citizens, we should keep an eye on the actions of our leaders and require them to act in good faith. That requires staying informed and aware. So I suggest that we should just do the best we can to study these things out in our own minds and apply some scientific and logical tools. Let's examine the statements and actions of our political and medical leaders and trust when trust is warranted. Policies and proclamation that can withstand scrutiny and are able to withstand peer review, logical tests, and the smell test, might be deemed as "of good report" and embraced. When it comes to the our health and the welfare of our families, paying attention and trying to make wise, informed decisions is a good idea. But if we are confident that other agencies are truly following the science wisely and we trust them, then we can relax for a while and simply follow what they say. Our choice.

How to deal with all the noise of life and evaluate what government is doing? Perhaps it comes down  to teaching our people, our children, our students, and our congregations correct principles, and then letting them govern themselves. I apologize again if that view does not comply with the latest goals of the CDC, but I think that's a principle that can stand the test of time. At least some CPDs might agree, but given their diversity, certainly not all. 

So what should a local church leader do with CPDs who are struggling with a unit's policies? It's a tough call, but one suggestion might be to talk to them and begin by recognizing that they may have serious reasons, possibly with some merit, for their concerns. Listen and discuss with respect. Share perspectives from our leaders and from your experience, and solicit their support where it is needed. Be patient, find workarounds, respect their agency, ask for their support, encourage others in the ward not to be angry or hostile, and keep moving Zion forward without compulsory means. Let's hope that these challenges will soon be things of the past as we focus on the things that matter most eternally.