The "Greatest Generation" beat the Great Depression and then went on to win World War II. They didn't throw up their hands and say there's nothing to be done when confronted with these daunting challenges.
That fortitude laid the foundation for peace and prosperity for decades to come. Now their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren face a generational challenge of their own — COVID-19. With the pandemic on an alarming national trajectory, this is no time to run from this battle. Instead, it's time to escalate the fight against the virus.
A strong first step: a two-month national mask mandate, a strategy that received a high-profile endorsement recently from Dr. Scott Gottlieb. Gottlieb served as the head of the Food and Drug Administration during the first few years of the Trump administration and won respect for his agency's crackdown on vaping after it was linked to serious, sometimes fatal lung disease.
Gottlieb also was among the first to flag serious problems early this year with developing a COVID test, and his smart, informed takes have continued since then. On Sunday, he called for the mask mandate in a Wall Street Journal commentary. "Deaths are starting to rise again, and vaccines won't be widely available until next year even in the best-case scenario," Gottlieb wrote. "Everyone banding together to wear masks, for a limited time, will be the least costly way for society to weather a difficult winter."
Gottlieb did not address the legal mechanism by which a federal mandate could be put in place. An Aug. 6 Congressional Research Service report concluded: "There are no existing federal laws that explicitly address mask wearing for public health purposes, but certain existing authorities could potentially form the basis for such executive action."
Gottlieb also would leave it up to states to enforce the mandate but stops short of recommending fines or other punishment. Instead, the goal is to make masks "a social and cultural norm, not a political statement" and one of the many things "we do because there is a community expectation of civil behaviors."
An effort to broaden use of masks is overdue. The pandemic is getting worse, not better. Nationally, COVID case tallies have set records over the past week, reaching an average of 71,092 cases per day, a 40% increase from the daily average 14 days ago, according to the New York Times. Deaths and hospitalizations are also rising in Minnesota and elsewhere.
There's also substantial and growing evidence that face masks have a critical role in containing the virus. Late last week, an analysis by University of Kansas researchers concluded that Kansas "counties with mask mandates had roughly half as many cases of the respiratory virus as the statewide average when adjusted for population." The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation also recently projected that achieving "universal mask use" in the U.S. (defined as reaching 95%) from late September through February 2021 could save 129,574 lives.
Unfortunately, mask use still lags in Minnesota and elsewhere. One of the most recent surveys of mask use is from Carnegie Mellon University's COVIDcast project. About 89% of Minnesotans reported wearing a mask most or all of the time while in public, a respectable statistic that still falls short of leading the pack. Minnesota's western neighbors, South Dakota and North Dakota, trail with 71% and 75% of those surveyed reporting wearing a mask most or all of the time in public. Iowa comes in at 80%. Wyoming brings up the rear at 66%.
Gottlieb's can-do approach contrasts favorably with the White House's current low-energy approach. Over the weekend, Mark Meadows, President Donald Trump's chief of staff, declared during a CNN interview that the United States is "not going to control the pandemic" because "it is a contagious virus just like the flu." He added that the focus will be on factors he believes can be controlled, such as developing a vaccine and better treatments, though these advances don't hew readily to man-made deadlines either. Compared to Trump's repeated contentions that the pandemic is "rounding the corner," which he said again Monday during a Pennsylvania appearance, Meadows is at least honest about strategy. But it's still the wrong approach given the pandemic's fearsome turn.
Actions can and should be taken to control COVID's spread. Needed measures include masks, social distancing and amped-up hygiene. They are low-cost and low-tech. The downsides are minimal or manageable. The upside is massive, saving lives and controlling the virus sooner so the economy can fully reopen.
These measures work best when everyone does them. Regrettably, there's still much room for improvement.