What Changed?


Leonard Zwelling

         Did I miss something? Did a major change occur with regard to the coronavirus outbreak plaguing the world when I wasn’t looking? Is it somehow less of a threat?

         The answer to the last question depends on your point of view, I guess, but the answers to the other questions are simple. No.

         If mitigation was the right way to go last month, it still is because the number of potentially infectious people has not really abated all that much and in many states, the curve of new cases is still on the rise.  If the Swedish rush to herd immunity is now viewed by the majority of Americans as the way to go, then maybe all this enhanced newly permitted commerce makes sense. But every poll to date is saying most Americans fear the progress to opening society might go too quickly. Which is it?

         The answer to all of this is politics and economics. A huge number of people have been put out of work. They are losing their businesses and nothing the government can do can alter that nor stop the ineluctable slide in the international markets abetted by the diminishing price of crude oil. It’s a perfect storm that is wearing down some governors who no longer find it tenable to keep their states shut. But make no mistake, if you believe that mitigation was the best strategy, something we commented on recently, then nothing has changed on the ground to encourage anyone to give up that strategy.

         Even the Trump Administration’s mixed signals have disagreed with the decision to open Georgia (which has not passed the government’s test to enter phase one) and it is likely that more states will see the gradual opening of businesses over the next few weeks despite absolutely nothing having occurred to make that safer, nor the states having seen the fall off in case numbers suggested as the gate through which they must pass prior to opening.

         This does illustrate a uniquely American problem. With poor leadership from Washington, in the White House and on Capitol Hill, states have been left to fend for themselves and governors cannot leave their political futures in the hands of President Trump. So they are going their own way. Red states seem to favor opening up. Blue states tend to stay locked down. We will find out shortly whether the openings were premature, but these openings must be considered in the face of the facts that the virus has not in any way been contained, nor a treatment found, nor a vaccine developed.

         Now if the strategy of the past few weeks is changing or mitigation has altered the overall likelihood of infection, let’s own up to that.

         Dr. Fauci says that mitigation has worked, The fact is it depends what you mean by worked. If he means that the health care systems of most American cities and states have been able to deal with the caseloads, then he’s probably right. If he means that we have made progress against the virus, he’s wrong. We may have dueled the virus to a draw—the very definition of the flattened curve—but we have not conquered it any more than we’ve beaten back the Taliban.

         Americans like winners. They like to root for winners. They like to be winners. But the battle with the coronavirus is nothing you will see on ESPN (if there’s anything to see on ESPN besides The Last Dance). The strategy outlined by Drs. Fauci and Birx was always one of temporization. All it was meant to do was “flatten the curve” and prevent overwhelming of the health care system. To become winners against this virus will require a full court press of science in detection, therapeutics and prevention. You know, like in cancer. Those things have yet to come to pass.

         There may be a logic to opening up the economy to some extent and doing so under new rules of social distancing, mask wearing, hand washing, and crowd avoidance, but make no mistake. Nothing much has changed unless the goals have changed. Have we gone from flattening the curve to a rush toward herd immunity Swedish style?

         Mr. Trump needs to answer the question.

It is quite clear that even New York may have overreacted. That huge, white ship has exactly ten patients on it. It sailed out of New York Harbor. It may come to pass that these resources will be needed if the virus comes back even worse in the fall and does so accompanied by the usual seasonal flu.

         The challenge is not over. In fact, it hasn’t really changed. Our reaction to it seems to. That too may prove to be unwise, but lots of states think it’s worth a try to create a post-covid world with masks, social distancing and incessant hand washing. They may be right.

         But the facts on the ground are the same. Our response to those facts is altering in the face of the new facts of economic wreckage. Let’s be honest about what’s going on. The problem is the same. We’ve changed the answer.

Leonard Zwelling