Checking in on COVID-19 Perspective
To greater and lesser degrees of badness, we’re all settling in to our new reality, but the need to understand what’s going on is not decreasing. Every week’s trip to the supermarket finds more people wearing masks while they shop, and every week brings new restrictions on where we can go and how many of us can be in the same place at once.
We’re utterly destroying our economy, and none of us can afford to let that slide without understanding for ourselves whether it’s excessive. That is especially true as the warned-about surge of hospitalizations remains prospective even as the steps we supposedly have to take to avoid it become increasingly draconian.
One step to making our own judgments is to compare rhetoric with facts. Here’s the beginning of Democrat Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo’s statement from today:
Today, I’m sad to report another two deaths here in the state of Rhode Island as a result of the coronavirus, bringing us to a total of 14 deaths. We have 54 new cases that I’m reporting today in Rhode Island, bringing us to a total of 711 cases, and unfortunately, we have 72 people in the hospital. As I’ve said from the beginning, we have our eye firmly on that hospitalization number because it’s a certain number. We still don’t have enough testing happening, so the number of tests is somewhat inaccurate.
We know there are many more people than 711 who have coronavirus. We know for sure there’s 72 people in the hospital, and that number is climbing very rapidly, so we know we are in a rapid-spread scenario here in Rhode Island, and what that means is that we have to get even more serious about the rules we have in place around social distancing, staying at home, absolutely staying at home if you’re sick, obeying quarantine if you’re in quarantine, and washing your hands constantly for 30 seconds at a time. These sound simple; they are life saving, and I need us all to do better, because we are in the rapid spread phase of the virus.
Put aside the lecturing tone of “I need us all to do better” and (later) “half of me is proud of you — but to those of you still pushing the limits — I need you to stop and start taking this seriously.”
What exactly is this “rapid spread phase”? If it means anything, it ought to be visible in some sort of data. The fact of the matter is that the rate of increase in known cases is slowing down, despite the increase in testing. Today’s number was an 8% increase over the prior day, versus an average of 24% during the last two weeks of March. Whether we look at the five-day period during which people may be asymptomatic but contagious or the 14-day period for which people might be quarantined, the rate of growth is dropping.
After a jump in hospitalizations in Tuesday’s report, the increase has not been nearly as high since. As for deaths, horrible as each one is, it has been consistently two per day. Moreover, a big portion of cases — seven deaths and 150 cases — have been in nursing homes, two locations in particular.
Of course, these trends can change, but the map of cases by county continues to show huge differences based on geography, with the bulk around New York City and a smaller burst to the northwest of Boston.
Data as of 9:30 p.m. 3/23/20.
In short, it isn’t glossing over the very real danger of the disease to note that Rhode Island does not appear to be accelerating toward a calamity. Perhaps there’s some data or some epidemiological fact that hasn’t been revealed, but if so, the governor needs to be explain it better than “I need us all to do better, although I’m not going to scare you with what I really know.”
Thus far, the spike in cases remains in the hypothetical future, whatever the much-touted models might suggest. If the the curve is flattening, as appears to be the case, further escalating the very real restrictions on people right now is not so obviously advisable for three reasons.
The first is the potential for lost credibility for warnings. We’re about to hit three weeks from the canceled St. Patrick’s Day parade in Newport, when self-righteous doomsayers were taking to Facebook to condemn revelers who went to bars despite the panic. Well, where’s the spike from that supposed recklessness? Per the latest report, Newport County has fewer than 39 cases.
We can bat around notes on population density and guess at the hometowns of people who went to Newport that night, but that’s beside the point. It isn’t obvious that giving local bars that last weekend of less-unhealthy revenue produced a disproportionate outbreak. If people begin to think the restrictions overbearing and unjustified, they might disregard all warnings, not just the most stringent.
The second is that our quasi–martial-law conditions have very real consequences. Unprecedented numbers of people are out of work, bringing all of the social problems that unemployment brings. In addition, people who endure a cloud of anxiety and hopelessness in the best of times are surely in agony right now.
This point has been especially poignant for me as I’ve delivered lunches from the Tiverton Senior Center with Tiverton Cares over the past couple of weeks. The first week, the recipients were notably on guard and stepping back from screen doors. This week, the sense of isolation was almost palpable, as if an accidental touch of a plastic-gloved hand showed a desire for any kind of human contact, no matter how small.
Of course, this particular population would have to maintain uncomfortable distance under any prescription for this pandemic, but the way we’ve been reacting, this same isolation is falling like a toxic dew across our society. When I delivered lunch to a resident of an apartment building, a young man seemed acutely eager to share an elevator ride. We are underestimating the toll of separation, which will be even higher when closeness can’t help compensate for the emotional weight of a down economy.
The third is that perpetuating fear can lead us to counterproductive policies. One gets the sense that the talk of the governor and others is actually intended to overstate the risk so as to increase compliance with basic rules. It is as if they think the masses have to be scared to death in order to wash our hands. This is a terribly low opinion of humanity.
Instead, if we had acknowledged the data and the specifics of the disease from the beginning, maybe we would have taken targeted steps rather than creating this opportunity for dictatorial sledge hammers. Had we done that, maybe we would have better protected nursing homes in lieu of closing stores. Maybe we would have preserved some hundreds or thousands of small businesses that now may never open again.
Of course, it is possible the big spike in cases is coming. Maybe there really is some need to crack down on grocers to count customers and make it more difficult for people to enjoy the outdoors at government-run parks. But as I look at the numbers, it seems to me that the governor just hasn’t made the case, and patience is running thin for those who insist that you just stay home for weeks or months because they know better.