Jeanette Strong: Throwing gasoline on the fire
“If we start to get back on our feet too soon … we could be throwing gasoline on the fire.” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D), April 12, 2020
On April 10, President Donald Trump said that reopening the country, after much of it was closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, will be the most difficult decision he’s ever made. To help him, he said he would surround himself “with the greatest minds … in numerous different businesses, including the business of politics and reason.” The group he forgot was scientists and doctors.
Multiple public health experts have warned that opening too early, without adequate preparation, will make our situation worse. Anand Parekh, former Health and Human Services deputy assistant secretary, said, “This idea that on May 1 we can just turn the switch, this will not be good from a public health perspective or for our economy. Not only are you risking a second wave, but a further economic closure.” (The Hill, April 10)
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, repeated that caution: “If you just say, ‘OK, it’s whatever, 1 May, click, turn the switch on,’ obviously, if you do it in an all-or-none way, there’s an extraordinary risk of there being a rebound. That could be a real problem. And everybody knows that.”
On April 16, the White House released a set of guidelines for reopening the economy. They include a downward trajectory of new COVID-19 cases, testing health care workers, opening movie theaters, churches, etc., and minimizing non-essential travel. Then non-essential travel can resume, while schools and daycares reopen. Finally, everyone can go back to work, with some social distancing. Nowhere do these guidelines recommend large-scale testing of the population.
On April 10, a group of governors, disease specialists and other experts described a strategy that focuses on controlling the disease: “Ramp up testing to identify people who are infected. Find everyone they interact with by deploying contact tracing on a scale America has never attempted before. And focus restrictions more narrowly on the infected and their contacts so the rest of society doesn’t have to stay in permanent lockdown.”
Would something like this work? “In South Korea, Taiwan, China and Singapore, variations on this basic strategy were implemented by their national governments, allowing them to keep the virus in check even as they reopened parts of their economy and society.” The results? Here are the deaths per million people for these countries, except China, as of May 1: South Korea – 4.6; Taiwan – 0.25; Singapore – 2.8. Deaths per million in the U.S.? 192. Clearly these other countries are doing something right. (Washington Post, April 10)
Medical experts know that without mass testing, the disease will erupt again, producing a far deadlier second wave. Gary Cohn, Trump’s former White House chief economic adviser, said, “The worst thing that could happen would be for us to throw everyone back into the economic cycle and have to go back to having 97% of our people being told to stay home again.” The physical, economic and emotional toll would be unimaginable. (Reuters, April 16)
Trump has tried to pass the buck, saying governors should be responsible for testing. But states can’t do this individually. Federal coordination is vital. Jennifer Pinto-Martin, professor of epidemiology, said, “The only way to successfully contain is with really systematic and aggressive testing and isolation and contact tracing. And the states don’t have the capacity to do that on their own.” (ABC News, April 18)
Trump is not only failing to provide leadership, he’s recklessly inciting protests against crucial life-saving state regulations. On April 17, he tweeted, “LIBERATE MINNESOTA! LIBERATE MICHIGAN! LIBERATE VIRGINIA!”
These protestors say if they can’t work, they may as well die, ignoring that they risk everyone else’s lives if we open up too soon. Trump supporters apparently think a bigger body count is a fair trade-off for an open economy. So much for the “pro-life” party!
In the 1918 flu pandemic, the first wave was deadly. As it receded, people returned to work, school, etc. When the second wave hit, it was far deadlier, resulting in the majority of American flu deaths. If our economy’s reopening isn’t handled correctly, we could see history repeat itself with tragic results.
Opening without proper preparation will cost more lives. Widespread testing must be the foundation of any plan to reopen our economy. Without adequate testing and follow-up, reopening the economy too soon will be as Gov. Murphy said – “Throwing gasoline on the fire.”
Jeanette Strong, whose column appears every other week, is a Nevada Press Association award-winning columnist. She may be reached at email@example.com.