When Campbell’s Law Collides with COVID-19

For those who aren’t familiar with Campbell’s Law:

“The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

And if physical distancing isn’t a social process, then nothing is. A few weeks ago, this came across the transom (boldface mine):

Since early September, Waukee and Woodbury Central Community School Districts have told teachers to get students up and walking around every 12-14 minutes in order to minimize consecutive time spent next to classmates. The 14-minute limit would allow most students to remain learning in-person even if someone in the classroom tests positive for COVID-19. The Iowa Department of Public Health guidelines state that only those exposed to the virus for 15 consecutive minutes within 6 feet need to quarantine after exposure.

Educators in various Northwest Iowa schools have also been encouraged to move students around every 14 minutes, said Uniserv Director at Iowa State Education Association Amy DeGroot-Hammer…

Eli Perencevich, an infectious-disease expert at the University of Iowa said there is no evidence that this practice would reduce the risk of catching COVID-19.

“It is true that we think that the longer you spend indoors with a sicker person increases your risk, but there is no finite threshold such that 14 minutes is safe,” he said. “I think that any sort of strategy like this that is used to block the use of contact tracing and quarantining will probably increase the spread of the virus. You’re going to have a false sense of security that you don’t need to quarantine because you’ve only spent 14 minutes with the person.”

The notion that the virus at 14 minutes and 55 seconds starts counting down, “T minus 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. GO! GO! GO!” is really silly. And dangerous. And doesn’t reflect the current state of the science, including the six foot distance (boldface mine):

Currently, “close contact” ignores airborne transmission. Using the current rule, if you (or your child) sat several desks away from another student during a two-hour classroom lecture, no one would need to inform you if that student tested positive for the virus. This is true even if the room is not well ventilated. In fact, in shared spaces where desks, cribs, or mats are placed more than 6 feet apart, the current rule would tell us that the presence of an infected individual would not lead to any of the occupants of the room qualifying as a close contact. This means that other occupants, students, teachers, or caregivers would not, according to federal health guidelines, need to be notified that they had been exposed to an infected individual.

We believe that this failure can lead to unnecessary disease spread. We also believe that strict applications of the “6 feet, 15 minutes” rule is at odds with the expectation parents, students, and teachers have that they should be informed if there is an infection in the classroom. Protracted proximity, under circumstances where ventilation and filtering are substantially reduced relative to being outdoors, should override the fact a person was by-the-measuring-stick distanced from the infected individual. Failing to account for such a commonsense concern of increased risk of airborne transmission in a stuffy room is not just a poor reading of recent science but also bad public health policy. Communication and trust in public health is a cornerstone of disease prevention. Sharing indoor space with a group is inevitably risky. People should have information on how best to protect themselves and others. They also should have the information needed to make personal decisions following a potential exposure—particularly if they are not currently identified as “close contacts” but nonetheless shared a space for an extended period with someone who has tested positive.

The goal isn’t to game the metrics, the goal is to stop the disease. But trying to fool the public health response is just short-sighted because you can’t fool the virus.

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1 Response to When Campbell’s Law Collides with COVID-19

  1. ElHongo says:

    Yeah, the only[*] way the 6-feet-15-minutes rule works in practice is by avoiding such situations entirely.
    Even so, you can still get infected if you stay, say, 7 feet away from an infected person for 10 minutes. The dice start rolling the moment you get close enough to someone’s aerosol cloud. If you stay there briefly, the risk is *usually* negligible. It is never zero.

    In other news: Not good. Not good at all: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/acn3.51210

    [*] Well, not the *only* one. I suspect it works quite well as a guideline for whom to include in a trace-and-test strategy.

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