Gov. Roy Cooper’s move to open up more of the economy is welcome.
It is also long overdue. The public health benefits of the strict lockdown policies he and other leaders have imposed are far outweighed by their devastating effects on the economy – the 36.5 million Americans who have filed for unemployment since mid-March are just the canary in the coal mine of imminent fiscal doom.
The central fact is that we will probably not have a vaccine that can protect us from the virus for many months, or even years. People will continue to get sick and die from COVID-19 until that happens.
Gov. Roy Cooper and other leaders, including President Trump, acknowledged that grim reality early on when they argued that public policy should aim to “flatten the curve” of inevitable infections so that we didn’t overwhelm the capacity of hospitals to treat victims. This was the logic of the lockdown.
Except for a few hotspots, the tsunami of patients never came. We flattened the curve so much we devastated the health care industry. As emergency rooms and hospital beds have lain empty, the federal government reported that 1.4 million health care jobs were lost in April – including 135,000 jobs at hospitals.
Here in North Carolina, Cooper continued with the lockdown even though his own health care advisors projected in early April that lifting his restrictions would only have a 50/50 chance of overtaxing the state’s acute care bed capacity (the chance was 25 percent with his draconian measures). Instead of announcing policies to allow people to return to work safely – to earn money for bills and save their businesses – Cooper warned changing course would produce “a catastrophe.”
The government’s absolutist response has been especially misguided because of its false assumption that everyone is at equal risk of dying from the virus. Reflecting national statistics, North Carolina reported on Tuesday that just three percent of the state’s 661 COVID-19 deaths had occurred in people under 50. Eighty-five percent of deaths were in those 65 and older.
This pattern has been clear since March. Nevertheless, North Carolina and other states have followed blanket policies, including closing schools, even though the young are not especially vulnerable to the virus’ worst effects.
The official malpractice is even worse when we consider that about one-third of all COVID-19 deaths nationwide are connected to nursing homes. Part of the reason is that several states, including New York – whose governor, Andrew Cuomo, has been lionized by the press – mandated until recently that nursing homes had to accept coronavirus patients.
The data indicate that we should do even more to isolate and protect the vulnerable, while letting younger people – who are more likely to experience mild symptoms if infected – get on with their lives.
In addition to shutting down businesses, Cooper and others have urged us to wear masks in public spaces. Sounds reasonable but in the absence of specific studies regarding COVID-19, the best science we have is a new study posted by the CDC which examined earlier flu outbreaks and found “no significant reduction in influenza transmission with the use of face masks.”
Finally, major media outlets have added to the alarm by publishing misleading statistics. Although North Carolina reports more than 11,000 residents have recovered from COVID-19, headline writers keep trumpeting running totals of confirmed cases which, of course, can only rise.
Despite their claims, Cooper and others are not acting on the best science – and we are paying the price.