The Emily Oster problem

Yesterday, unfortunately, Emily Oster’s latest essay “Your Unvaccinated Kid Is Like a Vaccinated Grandma” was published in The Atlantic. The subtitle declared, “Parents should bet on vacations with their kids this summer.“ I’ll explain why this essay being published is so unfortunate after I properly introduce you to the author.

Even if you haven’t heard who Emily Oster is, you’ve surely heard people parroting her continued dismissals of the risks of Covid-19 in school settings. Emily Oster belongs in a grouping with people such as Scott Atlas and Heather Mac Donald who peddle Covid-19 misinformation with no regard for the harm they cause.

Emily Oster is an economics professor at Brown University who has made a name for herself by wading into parenting and education topics and taking contrarian positions. That in of itself is not necessarily a bad thing given how parenting and education narratives are so often off the mark. However, when it comes to Covid-19, her contrarian positions are wrong, and have slowly become mainstream, and therefore have become a threat to public health.

Early in the pandemic she began to track the rate of COVID-19 spread in a small sample of schools, and has used this data to push for the reopening of schools. There were a whole slew of problems with her survey though, starting with it being self-reported because the schools that were most eager to participate would most likely be the ones to take the pandemic more seriously. How do I know there were problems with the survey? Well, I originally tried to participate in the survey because I wanted Abrome to contribute to anything that could help us better understand the threat of Covid-19 to educational settings and to the general public.

When I signed up to participate in the survey I was disappointed by the very narrow options that were available to describe our approach to bringing Learners (“students”) and Facilitators (“teachers) together outdoors (“at school”) during the pandemic. I emailed them to let them know the limitations of the survey and never received a response. I did, however, receive endless follow up emails asking me to complete the bi-weekly survey.

What I did not know at the time was that the survey was strictly a reopen school propaganda campaign under the guise of “science.” She would use the data collected to push her reopen schools argument, as opposed to using the data to help inform her whether or not schools should be reopened.

Boasting a data set that includes more than 3 million students and 422,000 teachers and other school staff, she has repeatedly used the data to show lower rates of positive COVID-19 cases among students and teachers than among the rest of the local population. What she does not explain is that the data is not a fair representation of what is happening in schools nationwide, nor does she give context to the numbers. For example, in even the most nonchalant schools they have implemented at least some Covid-19 protocols, which should decrease the rate of infection relative to say bars, restaurants, and office settings.

But, at least before variants such as B.1.1.7. came on scene, yes, younger people tended to contract the disease at lower rates, suffer less serious consequences from it, and there was for a long time a belief that young people may also spread the disease at lower rates than the general population (this last claim seems to no longer have merit). And when students make up the majority of the schooling population, the risk to teachers in schools with safety protocols should be lower than say the risk to bartenders, waiters, or office personnel. So is that an argument for reopening schools? No. It is an argument that perhaps bars and restaurants should be closed before schools get closed, which she has said, but it is not an argument that schools should reopen.

Wait, how do I know that it was a propaganda campaign? Well, because she essentially admitted it in a recent Freakonomics podcast (h/t @wsbgnl on Twitter). She said that she was tired of having her kids at home when schools shut down and “was eager to dispense with them to an outside location.” And that her role is to advocate for the reopening of schools, as opposed to allowing the data and the developing scientific understanding of the risks of spread in school to shape what she uses her platform for.

Oster was pushing for the reopening of schools right up until and through the latest wave that shot us past 400,000 and then 500,000 deaths, and she continues to push for it. Even though this has been in many ways a “lost school year,” she continues to argue that schools should reopen for the last few months of the year. But with so little time left in the school year, isn’t the window on her reopen school grandstanding coming to a close? Nope. She is just going to shift her focus to what happens over the summer. And the article I started this essay with is a great example of that shift happening, and because she has become so influential, it will be to the detriment of public health.

In the article she argues that although those under the age of 16-years-old cannot yet be vaccinated, that young people should be treated as if they are vaccinated, so go ahead and bring them to BBQs and take them on vacation! She is wrong. Let’s break down some of her claims in the essay.

But the best available research indicates that families with young children don’t, in fact, have to live like it’s 2020 until 2022. Parents can go ahead and plan on barbecues and even vacations. The explanation for why lies in the resilience of kids to COVID-19, and in herd immunity.

Response: The best available research does not support her claims in this essay. But it has become commonplace for people to make broad statements like this without pushback, in large part because so many people are like Oster, tired of having their kids around. Or maybe they are business leaders who want their employees to come back to work.

Children are not at high risk for COVID-19. We’ve known since early in the pandemic that they are much less likely to fall ill, especially seriously ill. Although scientists don’t quite understand why, kids seem to be naturally protected. As a result, you can think of your son or daughter as an already vaccinated grandparent.

Response: What constitutes “high risk”? The same nonsense is pushed by Covid-deniers who claim that Covid-19 has a 98% “survival rate” (down from their prior claims of 99.97%, 99.7%, and 99%). Young people do fall ill, they do fall seriously ill, and some of them do die. The fact that kids have these bad outcomes highlights that kids are not “naturally protected.” And no, you cannot think of your child as an already vaccinated grandparent.

Think about a grandmother who’s received, say, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Trial research indicates that the second shot reduces her risk of serious illness by about 95 percent. …

Being a child aged 5 to 17 is 99.9 percent protective against the risk of death and 98 percent protective against hospitalization. For children 0 to 4, these numbers are 99.9 percent (death) and 96 percent (hospitalization).

Response: Here Oster focuses on hospitalization and death as a distraction from infections so that she can say that being an unvaccinated child is akin to being a vaccinated grandparent. But why would she do that? Because,

The central goal of vaccination is preventing serious illness and death. From this standpoint, being a child is a really great vaccine. Your unvaccinated first grader appears to have about as much protection from serious illness as a vaccinated grandmother.

Response: WRONG. While vaccines help prevent serious illness and death, the larger goal of vaccination, as the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services highlights, is to “help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and bring this pandemic to an end.” Oster conveniently focuses on the individual benefits of vaccines while ignoring the population benefits. That is why she talks about hospitalization and death rates, but not infection rates. Vaccines help prevent the spread of the disease that ultimately leads to serious illness and death. Just because kids are far less likely to be hospitalized or die than elderly folks does not mean they don’t spread the disease.

Oster knows exactly what she is doing with this sleight of hand. Her persona is now wrapped up in dismissing the risks of Covid-19 to children, and to the people children come into contact with (e.g., teachers, parents, grandparents). She did not care if your children spread the disease to their teacher, and she does not care if your children spread the disease to older people while on vacation to Disney World or Costa Rica, or at a family reunion where grandma is going to want to hug little Jane and Johnny.

Later in the essay, after Oster makes her argument that kids should be treated as if they are vaccinated, she acknowledges that unvaccinated kids are “more likely to contract it than a vaccinated grandmother,” even thought it is a certainty at the population level. But she buried it enough in the essay that her talking points will get repeated without the necessary context. She also waives off the buried semi-acknowledgement with a herd immunity defense, for anyone that reads that far.

When you think about socializing or traveling with your children this summer, remember that you’ll likely be traveling around in a low-disease environment with the equivalent of your vaccinated older parent. But with more whining. Maybe.

Response: Your unvaccinated kid is the equivalent of your vaccinated older parent only if we focus on the risk of hospitalization or death to the unvaccinated kid and vaccinated grandparent while ignoring the risk of either contracting and spreading the disease to others. This is reason enough to ignore what Oster has to say about Covid-19 and kids. She does not care about the impact of an infected kid on the rest of society.

Also, we should make it a practice of not listening to people who dislike kids (whether they whine or not).

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Update 3/19/21 @ 4:10p: it looks like lots of people are responding with similar outrage to the profoundly horrible essay by Emily Oster. For example:

Anti-oppression. Liberation through education: @AbromeEd. End police abuse: @PeacefulStreets.