By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
The Sunday New York Times has me banging my head on my desk again:
As you can see, in the printed version of the Times, “Covid Closed the Nation’s Schools. Cleaner Air Can Keep Them Open” is laid out in the top right corner of the front pages; that makes it the “lead story” for that day (a Sunday, as it happens, the day that tens of thousands of Acela Corridor readers are settling into their summer deckchairs with a couple of pounds of newsprint for a solid afternoon of PMC hive mind thought before moving on to the Crossword puzzle. And possibly the recipe).
A shame, then, that the story is mediocre at best, at a time when we need excellence so very badly (the same slovenly operational incapability from the County of Los Angeles Public Health Department had me banging my head on my desk yesterday). Perhaps, after three years and counting of Covid, we should be grateful for any content that isn’t outright eugenicist. In the first part of this post, I’ll quote the portions of the story that I am, in fact, grateful for; material that, in a phrase that’s all over everything these days, “what to know.” In the second part, I will do a closer reading of the text, revealing material that’s sloppy, haphazard, poorly sourced, and superficial; in a word, lazy.
Here are the paragraphs I am grateful for; truths that New York Times readers can accept as true:
Ventilation means good air quality, and good air quality is good.
[T]he problem is bigger than the coronavirus. Indoor air may be contaminated not just by pathogens, but also by a range of pollutants like carbon monoxide, radon and lead particles. Concentrations can be five times higher or more indoors than they are outdoors, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
[D]ecades of research have suggested that improving air quality also can raise academic performance, increase test scores, bolster attention and memory, and decrease absences due to illness or other factors.
We would not accept drinking water that is full of pathogens and looks dirty,”” said Linsey Marr, an expert in airborne transmission of viruses at Virginia Tech. “”But we’ve been living with air that is full of pathogens and dirty.””
There’s big money out there for improving ventilation.
[T]here have never been more resources available for the task: nearly $200 billion, from an array of pandemic-related measures, including the American Rescue Plan Act. Another $350 billion was allotted to state and local governments, some of which could be used to improve ventilation in schools.
Mysterious, unnamed forces prevent big money from being spent on ventilation.
Schoolchildren are heading back to classrooms by the tens of millions now, yet much of the funding for such improvements is sitting untouched in most states.
Among the reasons: a lack of clear federal guidance on cleaning indoor air, no senior administration official designated to oversee such a campaign, few experts to help the schools spend the funds wisely, supply chain delays for new equipment, and insufficient staff to maintain improvements that are made.
Some school officials simply may not know that the funds are available. “”I cannot believe the amount of money that is still unspent,”” Dr. [Joseph] Allen said. “”It’s really frustrating.””
How odd! One can only wonder why that might be. However, if one believes that the Biden Administration’s Covid policy can be described in the following points, then everything falls into place, and there’s no reason to think this administration would support a mitigation like ventilation at all:
(1) Mass infection without mitigation
(2) Intramuscular injection of vaccines
(3) Hospitalization and death as only metrics that matter
There is also a fourth point:
(4) PMC who support this program are hegemonic, hence amplified; the exceptional others are at best ignored and at worst ostracized or attacked. (This applies to the media, academe, medical professionals, the political class, and agencies like CDC; NIH; HHS, etc.)
I can’t help but wonder whether the article’s thin sourcing on airborne transmission is due to some similar dynamic.
Now let us turn to the fun part: A close reading of five passages. I will go passage by passage, indenting quotes from the article, prepending “NYT,” and adding lettered notes yellow wader-style, thus: “[A]”.
(1) Masking omitted from discussion of CDC study
NYT The coronavirus is an airborne threat, and the incidence of Covid was about 40 percent lower[A] in schools that improved air quality, one study found.
NYT Researchers at the C.D.C. and the Georgia Department of Public Health surveyed 169 elementary schools[B] in Georgia at the end of 2020, after in-person learning had resumed in the state.
Schools that improved ventilation had 39 percent fewer Covid cases, compared with schools that had not. Schools that combined better ventilation with filtration had 48 percent fewer cases.
[A], [B]. Confusingly, the links in the two paragraphs are both links to the same CDC study. The study concludes:
This study highlighted the importance of masking and ventilation for preventing SARS-CoV-2 transmission in elementary schools and revealed important opportunities for increasing their use among schools. A multicomponent approach to school COVID-19 prevention efforts is recommended (2), and and improved ventilation are two important strategies that could reduce SARS-CoV-2 transmission as schools continue, or return to, in-person learning.
Why does the reporter erase masking?
(2) Masking omitted from discussion of Italian study
NYT A large study of schools in Italy estimated that students in classrooms equipped with ventilation systems or devices that deliver clean air had an at least 74 percent lower risk of infection than students in classrooms with open windows[C].
[C] Yes, but the baseline for the study is other non-pharmaceutical interventions also practiced by Italian schools. From the study:
[D]uring the observation period, protective measures were adopted in Italian schools for students such as distancing, , and frequent opening of windows and doors to improve ventilation.
Once again, the reporter erases masking. Why? This is important not merely because masks are an important part of the story, even in schools, and so erasing them is wrong. More importantly, I believe that a strategy of layered projection (“Swiss Cheese Strategy”) is best, and it makes no sense at all to omit a layer.
(3) Corsi-Rosenthal boxes are better and cheaper than air purifiers, but are omitted
NYT C.D.C. researchers have estimated that air purifiers[D] may decrease the exposure to aerosols — tiny floating droplets that might contain virus — by up to 65 percent.
All DIY air cleaners outperformed the commercial HEPA. This is not a surprise. We have seen the same thing in all of our head-to-head comparisons. At last count there are 13 other peer-reviewed studies that have found the same thing. How can air cleaners using MERV 13 filters that are 50% effective on particles less than 1 um do better at removing sub-micron sized particles than a HEPA filter that is 99.97% efficient on these same particles? The answer is that filter effectiveness is not determined just by filter efficiency. It is the combination of the filter and the flow through the filter that gives the full picture.
(Besides being better, they’re cheaper.) By omitting Corsi-Rosenthal boxes, the Times does a real disservice to readers MR SUBLIMINAL By making their environment more lethal. Further, the Times also misses an interesting social movement: Many, many people, particularly parents with schoolchildren, make the DIY Corsi-Rosenthal boxes, often by mass producing them, and give them away.
(4) CO2 is not merely a pollutant, but a proxy for shared air
NYT The research wrapped up early last year, and the results so far indicate that the network produced a 44 percent drop in carbon dioxide levels, often used as a proxy[E] for air quality.
[E] When humans exhale by breathing, talking, singing, or shouting, they exhale carbon dioxide along with bio-effluent (say, SARS-CoV-2 aerosols). When humans inhale, they inhale carbon dioxide along with bio-effluent (say, SARS-CoV-2). We cannot measure SARS-CoV-2 directly (yet), but we can use the concentration of rebreathed CO2 in a given space as a proxy for the amount of rebreathed virus. Hence, CO2 is not a proxy for “air quality.” It’s a proxy for the presence of an airborne Level Three biohazard. So either the reporter didn’t talk to the right people, or they did, and what those people said got lost on the cutting room floor:
Everything you needed to know about using CO2 levels as a proxy for too much shared air.https://t.co/PIXE6aVp53
— Trisha Greenhalgh (@trishgreenhalgh) April 5, 2021
The upshot is that any Times reader who owns an Aranet4 or similar device is now stupider about how it works than they were before they read this story.
(5) A classic case of “the press is never the story.”
NYT At East High in Denver, as in the rest of America, Covid is fast receding as a priority. Mr. Oxman, the music teacher, is back full time, but the pandemic doesn’t seem to have brought many lasting changes. East High is mostly the same.
“”Things are kind of going back to the way they were[F],”” he said.
[F] Thanks to the
Goebbels-level propaganda good work of so many Covid minimizers, prominent among them David Leonhardt, also of The Times. Churlish of me to mention, but there it is.
As I said, I’m glad the Times raised the issue: Good air is good, after all. But why the shoddiness at the detail level? I’m guessing that The Times likes to think of itself driving policy, not “merely” reporting the news. It’s clear that the Biden Administration’s policy on Covid is and has been
social murder in the first degree miserably inadequate, as anyone who follows the science on airborne transmission must know. Hence, the desire to avoid losing any journalist’s all-important access by holding anyone — Biden, Fauci, Walensky, Zeints, Jha, Cohen, not to mention the Democrat Party generally, including the putative “left” — accountable by naming them. Hence the deliberate and consistent erasure of masking, hated by the Biden Administration, and the hegemonic factions of the PMC in particular. You don’t get to make policy by annoying important people! I’m guessing The Times, along with some activists, would like, as a first step to driving policy, to detach “indoor air quality” from the contentious and divisive topic of the airborne tranmission of SARS-CoV-2. But the repressed returns, right in the headline: “ the Nation’s Schools.” As it will continue to do, until the next airborne pandemic replaces Covid.
 Allen, Marr, Hernandez, and Corsi are all good (but see note  on Allen). However, if you’ve been following the overthrow of droplet dogma by aerosol science — a paradigm shift sadly not complete — you will recall a seminal article that appeared in The Lancet: “Ten scientific reasons in support of airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2.” The Lancet authors are: Trisha Greenhalgh, Jose L Jimenez, Kimberly A Prather, Zeynep Tufekci, David Fisman, and Robert Schooley. The omission of Jimenez and Tufekci from the Times article is especially odd, since Jimenez is at the University of Colorado Boulder, and the reporter visited Boulder; while Tufekci actually works at the Times. Greenhalgh, Prather, and Fisman are also all eminently quotable. This matters, because anybody mentioned in a Times story has a leg up on future media appearances, being perceived as authoritative, and the #CovidIsAirborne brigade needs and deserves all the help it can get. It’s also odd that Corsi’s partner in designing and propagating the Corsi-Rosenthal box, Jim Rosenthal, is also omitted. Of course, one could argue that “air in schools” is the topic, not “air” as such. Hospital Infection Control takes a similar view, to the detriment of patients. Aerosol engineering is aerosol engineering.
 If masking was omitted on the advice of Joseph Allen, that should have been mentioned by the reporter.
Needless to say, schools in wealthier communities knew everything this article has to say about ventilation, and more, in 2020. See “How Ashish Jha and Rochelle Walensky of Newton, MA Protect Their Children from Covid (But not Yours).” The reporter might have mentioned this. Or even visited Newton.