Is it? Perhaps everywhere but the media and in teachers unions, it is. The latest iteration of the Axios-Ipsos tracking poll indicates that mask mandates have abated in practice everywhere else, and with it a renewed sense of normalcy.

That’s the topline, but there are more nuanced issues:

Americans’ emotional and physical health is bouncing back, along with record confidence about life returning to “normal” as mask mandates are abandoned, according to the latest installment of the Axios/Ipsos Coronavirus Index.

The big picture: Two years after the start of the pandemic, the nation is ready to move on, even as disinformation at home and a resurgence of cases in Europe driven by the B.A.2 variant point to challenges on the horizon.

64% of survey respondents now favor federal, state and local governments lifting all COVID-19 restrictions, up 20 percentage points since early February.

How much of that sense of normalcy is directly attributable to government signaling on mask mandates? The chart included in this Axios report suggests that the rebound on risk assessment is strongly associated with such signaling:

If the mask mandates were to return tomorrow, that purple line would likely revert back — at least somewhat. That might be a rational response, assuming that mask mandates get imposed when there is a high enough rational risk to merit them. Even in the huge wave of the much-milder Omicron variant, though, the renewed mandates pushed the risk assessment sharply negative — even though the actual risk was almost certainly much lower than it was in September 2021 and especially in the November-December Delta wave.

At some point, there will be a deluge of very interesting social-science studies about the impact of government signaling on personal behavior. We might even regain our sense of the law as a moral code, if we peek closely enough at that data.

For now, though, let’s talk about actual risk rather than perceived risk through signaling. The renewed and amplified mask mandates heightened a risk that was largely absent, thanks to some still-poorly collected data at the CDC. Axios’ Margaret Talev, normally adept enough to see past this, falls into that trap, as does Ipsos:

“While we’re definitely seeing this movement toward opening up, public understanding of what’s going on is still not super-duper strong,” cautioned Ipsos pollster and senior vice president Chris Jackson.

Only one in three respondents were aware that more than 1,000 people in the U.S. each day are still dying from the virus.

That’s not accurate. More than 1,000 people a day are dying with the virus, not necessarily from the virus. Despite more than a year’s debate over data collection, the CDC is still counting all hospital admissions and deaths with a COVID diagnosis, regardless of whether the admission or death had anything to do with COVID. At the very start of the outbreak that might have been understandable, but the CDC has had two years to distinguish between correlative admissions/deaths and causative admissions/deaths. In the Omicron wave, this became a huge problem, as the virus became so transmissible and yet so mild that it clearly began appearing in many more admissions and deaths even while having nothing to do with either. Anthony Fauci himself had to debunk the idea that Omicron had suddenly begun causing a spike in pediatric hospitalizations in mid-December by pointing to a correlative-data problem at the CDC.

Supposedly the CDC was going to start fixing this problem, but it doesn’t appear to be a priority. They announced six weeks ago that they would revamp their reporting systems to screen out correlative admissions and deaths. Thus far their data shows no change to this commingling of correlative and causative incidents. The result is that we have no real clue as to how many people a day are dying from the virus, by the CDC’s own admission. Given the fact that Omicron and its subvariants are now 100% of the genomic tracking in the US, and that Omicron has far milder and rarely fatal outcomes, the assumption should be that actual causative deaths from COVID at the moment are a tiny fraction a day from that number. The vast majority of those deaths are likely from other causes in people who have been exposed to Omicron tangentially.

In this case, Americans might be ahead of the curve and the government/media signaling on the pandemic. We’ll see how soon the government and the media catch up. The next mask mandate may end up as a signal that no one heeds, and perhaps for good reason.

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