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How Fox News is playing fast and loose with American lives, illustrated by one Dr. Oz clip

“Schools are a very appetizing opportunity.”

Dr. Oz in a Fox News studio in March 2020.
Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

As President Donald Trump pushes for the relaxation of social distancing guidelines and the resumption of something resembling pre-coronavirus social and economic activity, his supporters on Fox News are reaching for talking points to justify this course of action. A recent appearance on Hannity by Dr. Mehmet Oz illustrated how this search has run into significant moral roadblocks.

Dr. Oz — who got his start years ago on Oprah and has lately become a ubiquitous presence on Fox News, making daily appearances in which he regularly promotes unproven, dangerous drugs — made a case on Tuesday that reopening schools is “a very appetizing opportunity,” citing a study that he claimed showed doing so would only increase coronavirus deaths by 2 to 3 percent.

“Well, first, we need our mojo back. Let’s start with things that are really critical to the nation where we think we might be able to open without getting into a lot of trouble,” Dr. Oz said. “I tell you, schools are a very appetizing opportunity. I just saw a nice piece in The Lancet arguing that the opening of schools may only cost us 2 to 3 percent, in terms of total mortality. And, you know, any life is a life lost, but to get every child back into a school where they’re safely educated, being fed and making the most out of their lives, with a theoretical risk on the backside, it might be a trade-off some folks would consider.”

(On Thursday evening, Dr. Oz posted a video on Twitter saying that “I’ve realized my comments on risks around opening schools have confused and upset people, which was never my intention. I misspoke.)

It should be noted that Dr. Oz misinterpreted The Lancet study he mentioned. What it actually details is a finding made by UK researchers that closing schools there without any other mitigation measures (such as social distancing) would reduce baseline Covid-19 deaths there by somewhere between 2 percent and 4 percent. The study does not speak to what impact the reopening of US schools would have on the coronavirus mortality rate here, so Oz’s analysis was confused. (Ironically, The Lancet’s underlying source is the very same WHO/Imperial College model that Fox News hosts have been trashing.)

That aside, Oz’s remarks come as the most-cited models now forecast the US will experience somewhere around 60,000 Covid-19-related deaths. (The total stands at over 33,000 as of today.) A 4 percent increase of that total represents an additional 2,400 lives. So what Dr. Oz was trying to say is that the prospect of that many additional deaths in exchange for the reopening of schools “might be a trade-off some folks would consider.”

While there’s no study backing up the numbers Dr. Oz threw around, the fact he was so callous about more than 62,000 lives is instructive in its own right. It points toward what a chorus of right-wing voices seem willing to sacrifice in the hope of restoring a sense of normalcy.

“Many are willing to take the risk of contracting the virus”

With a tough reelection campaign on the horizon and the economy he spent so much time boasting about during his first three years in office in ruins, Trump has self-interested reasons for wanting to get kids back to school and parents back to work. But the data indicates that from a public health standpoint, doing so at this point in time would be premature.

First of all, a quick look at the data shows that the US coronavirus curve hasn’t really flattened yet. Unlike countries like South Korea or Taiwan, the number of cases here continues to increase in something approximating an exponential manner.

Second, other countries that have had far less of a problem with the coronavirus, such as Germany, have just started to consider reopening schools — and schools that have reopened in Denmark, which recently became the first European country to take that step, have done so with new, strict social distancing rules. The idea that schools in a country where the coronavirus is currently killing 2,000 people a day (or more) are ready to reopen is out of step with reality.

Trump is looking for evidence — any evidence — to back his reopening position

As callous as they may be, Oz’s comments do reflect a talking point that’s gaining steam on the right as frustration has mounted with the social distancing measures (including school closures) that most Americans have endured for the past month.

On Wednesday, for instance, host Laura Ingraham pointed out that everything we do in life comes with some degree with risk, and used that observation to suggest continued social distancing measures represent government overreach.

“Many are willing to take the risk of contracting the virus,” she said, in an observation similar to the one made by Dr. Oz.

Meanwhile, Tucker Carlson’s show featured him confronting Gov. Phil Murphy (D-NJ) about the constitutionality of stay-at-home orders and an interview with Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) in which Kennedy said, “we gotta reopen, and when we do the coronavirus is gonna spread faster.”

“You know what kills more people every year than coronavirus — a lot more? Poverty,” Carlson replied, using a false equivalency Trump has also given voice to.

While it’s true that we’re all going to die someday, most people would rather it not happen in the short- to medium-term future because of a communicable disease whose spread we could slow if people would just stay home for the foreseeable future. In fact, new surveys from Gallup and Pew show that more people are afraid of lifting restrictions too quickly rather than keeping them around too long. Nor do we want our neighbors or their children’s teachers to meet their demise in that way.

One person’s statistic is another person’s mother or grandmother. Sacrificing thousands of lives in a misbegotten attempt to get back to normalcy is only an “appetizing opportunity” when you assume the lives lost aren’t your own or those of the people you love.

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