End the Calamity of Shutdowns
States like New York and New Jersey, with some of the nation’s strictest COVID-lockdown measures, are relaxing some restrictions but they must accelerate their reopenings and focus on targeting resources to hotspots and protecting the most vulnerable while allowing their economies and our health sector to resume providing vital services.
They can help release the pressure valve on society by allowing businesses to rebuild and reopen so people can get back to work and patients can once again get medical care from struggling doctors and hospitals.
Months of confinement have taken an enormous toll in physical and mental health deterioration, loss of education, and joblessness, with 43 million unemployment claims filed since the pandemic began. Former White House chief economist Casey Mulligan estimated the cost of the shutdowns to be nearly $11,000 per household—even before the demonstrations.
The shutdowns were designed to slow the spread in order to manage hospital capacity and never were expected to kill the virus. Many states that were first to reopen have not had higher coronavirus related ICU demands or deaths than other states, although all states should be vigilant to identify emerging hotspots.
The evidence now allows these officials to make much more informed decisions about protecting their citizens by focusing their virus interventions on vulnerable populations and infection outbreaks so schools and businesses can reopen. Testing must continue and accelerate, especially in inner cities where there has been a notable lack of social distancing among demonstrators. These cities may experience new outbreaks, but data show that young people—those primarily in the streets—are much less susceptible to experiencing serious symptoms and death than the frail elderly.
The evidence shows how virus responses can and should be targeted. Half of all counties in the U.S. didn’t have a single death from the virus as of mid-May, and nearly two-thirds had only one, according to a new paper by co-author Doug Badger and Norbert Michel of Heritage. More than 53% of COVID-19 deaths are concentrated in just 30 counties where just 15% of Americans live. Of those counties, 24 are in the congested Northeast corridor between Philadelphia and Boston.
A separate analysis by Gregg Girvan and Avik Roy for the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity finds that 42% of COVID-19 deaths are concentrated in nursing home facilities that house just 0.62% of the population. Excluding New York State, more than half of COVID-19 deaths are nursing home related.
We know where the problem is and where officials should be concentrating their efforts.
Locking people in their homes didn’t help anyway. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo reported that 66% of COVID-19 patients admitted to 100 hospitals were people who had sheltered at home. “Shocking,” Gov. Cuomo said.
If public officials follow the evidence, they would act to protect those at most risk from the disease—the elderly—especially those in congregate settings—nursing homes—and in the 1% of counties with most of the infections and deaths.
Florida got it right. Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a statewide “safer at home” executive order April 3 and then began to roll it back throughout most of the state on May 4. He was called a public menace when he allowed beaches, restaurants and other public places to reopen.
Instead, DeSantis maintained restrictions in hotspots, focused resources on protecting nursing home residents, and required travelers from states with high degrees of contagion to quarantine for 14 days on their arrival in the Sunshine State.
The result: Florida has just over 2,800 coronavirus deaths versus 24,000 in New York, even though Florida has two million more residents and the largest percentage of people over 65 of any state in the nation.
Where infection rates are high, states should do more testing and contact tracing, provide voluntary isolation facilities for the sick, and, in some cases, have travel restrictions. Officials should focus their virus-fighting efforts on protecting those who are at greatest risk—the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions—and immediately end bans on non-emergent care so non-COVID patients can get surgeries and treatments they need.
With more than 112,000 U.S. coronavirus deaths recorded nationwide—and a shockingly-high number from nursing homes—an economic depression, inner cities destroyed, hospitals and physician practices in the red, unprecedented levels of federal deficit and debt, and reckless monetary policy, it is vital that policymakers retarget their responses to avoid exacerbating the catastrophe.
Doug Badger is a senior fellow and Grace-Marie Turner is president of the Galen Institute, a non-profit research organization focusing on market-based health policy reform.