“We cannot let the CDC guidelines on safely reopening schools, stop us from reopening the schools” Vice President Mike Pence, July 8, 2020
And the beat goes on.
In regard to the Covid-19 pandemic, things have changed dramatically in the southern United States over the last two weeks. Florida, Texas, Arizona, and Los Angeles County in California have sustained a record setting number of new cases. Hospitals in some counties are filled to capacity. The percent of cases that test positive in these states has spiked from 5-7% a few weeks ago to over 20% now. The United States total new case load is now at almost 60,000 cases per day up from 20,000 in early June.
Because most states have developed their own policies to try to control the epidemic, we are now in the midst of a science experiment to see which policies work best. Most the states in the Northeast, including Maryland, adopted a strategy similar to European countries and countries in the Far East: Shut everything down, wear masks, reopen progressively when the measures of viral prevalence are very low. In these states less than 5% of Corona Virus tests have been positive for over 6 weeks, and all parameters – deaths, hospitalizations, and total cases are stable or declining.
The southern states did not have a specific strategy but found their way into something resembling the Swedish experiment: Keep things open, masks are not mandatory, let the young people frolic. Most of the older population in these states self-quarantined because they did not want to die. I must admit that outside of the nonchalance with masks, I thought this policy might work. But it has not. In Sweden, death rates are 10 times higher than in the neighboring countries of Finland and Norway. The Swedish economy, which was hypothesized to be spared by the less restrictive rules, still took a 4.5% hit in the last quarter.
The southern states, in their current predicament, will pose a threat to the health and economic well-being of the entire country. They are in a phase of exponential growth, and do not have the political will to take the steps to stop it. Without dramatic measures, high caseloads are likely to continue or perhaps grow. If we assume that the current number of measured cases per day are one tenth of the true cases, (this is what most experts surmise) and the measured new cases grow to 100,000 per day, there will be about 1,000,000 new cases of Covid-19 per day in the US in the near future.
So, the science experiment that is occurring in the USA and around the world seems to indicate that shutting things down for a time to get the viral load in check, and then reopening slowly, is the best way out of this. Those that argue that this approach kills the economy may have a point for the short term. But in the long term, uncontrolled growth of the virus poses far more economic harm, because it takes much longer to get a virus that is spreading exponentially under control. It overwhelms hospital systems and results in unnecessary deaths from patients who cannot be treated because of limitations in healthcare capacity. Businesses cannot operate successfully in a climate of uncertainty and are more likely to fail.
So, the new push to reopen schools in places where viral prevalence remains high, is equivalent to previous actions of Southern governors who opened things up without achieving the goals of low viral transmission. Opening schools without following the guidelines set by public health specialists as Mr. Pence suggests, is a recipe for further disaster.
We do not really have to worry too much about the kids, because they are not likely to get sick. But they will come home to Mommy and Daddy, and Grandma and Grandpa, and spread this thing like a California wildfire in some states, which have existing high viral loads.
We are in good shape in Maryland for the moment. The leadership in our state has shown deference to scientific principles and will likely be cautious about the way schools are reopened. But the spread of virus through the Southern United States is unlikely to stay localized and will threaten the entire country.
I receive emails every week informing me of various conspiracy theories about the virus. I would say that in March, we knew very little about how to treat it effectively, but scientists did know about the behavior of pandemics, and did give advice about how to control it. That advice, masks, stay at home except for essential excursions, avoid crowds, social distancing, proved to be correct in many states in the US and countries around the world.
Sticking with the science has landed men on the moon, built nuclear powered submarines, made HIV a nonfatal disease, cured Hepatitis C and a variety of cancers, rid the world of polio and Smallpox, and allowed us to video-chat on our phones. Scientists will likely be successful in creating a vaccine to stop the Covid-19 Pandemic. As cases of Covid-19 surge in parts of the country that disregarded the advice of scientists, this may be a good time to take stock in our previous track record as a country of our past scientific achievements. This is not a time for Wishful Thinking, conspiracy theories, hoping for the best, and disregarding proven guidelines, especially when we are wagering the life of our children. Let’s give science a try for a change.