Many commentators paint an ominous future for states loosening COVID-19 restrictions. Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia has come under particular fire from the mainstream media. But it is safe for Georgia and most other states to return to work now.
It is hard to catalogue all the media misinformation reported as fact. One of the media’s most obvious errors is mistaking rising infection rates as a sign of unchecked disease.
Consider a recent New York Times article critical of Kemp: The reporters point out the White House recommends that before opening businesses, officials wait for a two-week downward trend in either the number of new cases or the share of COVID-19 tests that come back positive.
While admitting that the share of Georgia positive tests had dropped for the previous week, the reporters offer their “gotcha” moment: The state of Georgia failed the second test because the number of positive tests was now increasing.
Yet what they fail to acknowledge is that the new higher positives is because Georgia is testing so many more people on a daily basis.
If I test a group of 10 for left-handedness, I would probably find one. If tomorrow I test 100, I would find 10. That does not mean the rate has increased 10-fold. It just means we have expanded the pool of people we are testing.
Even more egregious is the media coverage of Sweden, which committed the crime of imposing rather lax COVID-19 restrictions. The media never tire of noting that Sweden has a higher mortality rate than its neighbors, Norway and Denmark. But they don’t acknowledge that this is a function of Sweden’s higher mortality rate prior to any restrictions.
After enacting its restrictions, Sweden bent its mortality rate as much as Norway and Denmark. In other words, laxer restrictions seem to work as well at least in certain cases as more restrictive measures.
There are three reasons to trust the liberalizing instincts of Gov. Kemp and, by extension, other governors, both Democratic and Republican. First, the mortality rate of Georgia started decreasing only 2 ½ weeks after he imposed moderate restrictions and less than two weeks after he issued the more conservative shelter-in-place order.
Since it usually takes at least three weeks for the mortality rate to reflect restrictive measures, Georgians apparently were already voluntarily social distancing, washing hands or enacting other measures before the government acted.
Many of these behaviors will likely persist throughout the country after the restrictions are lifted.
Second, calamitous super-spreader events, such as a large funeral in Georgia and Mardi Gras celebrations in Louisiana, will not be permitted during the first three phases of the White House/CDC plan. These kinds of events substantially exacerbated the mortality rates in every state where they occurred.
Third, experts have not given proper due to the “sunshine” effect. Warmer states, such as Tennessee, California and Texas have lower mortality rates; Hawaii has the lowest.
All countries south of the equator, now in their warmer months, have extremely low mortality rates. Warmer spring and summer temperatures will mean fewer deaths throughout the United States.
Fourth, Sweden has bent its mortality rate curve while using measures that are halfway between Phases 1 and 2 of the White House/CDC plan. Deaths are decreasing even though young children have remained in school, and restaurants, bars, casinos and even ski resorts have remained open.
These modest measures have been effective in Sweden; they should work here as well.
The summer and early fall are not going to be problematic for most states, as shown by a model I and my colleagues have developed (covidplanningtools.com) that has offered more reliable predictions than the IMHE model.
Late fall and winter might present some difficult tradeoffs, such as opening potential super-spreader venues for sports or entertainment. But if these prove to be problematic, states can always return to the more restrictive practices of a previous phase.
We need disparate approaches — not a monolithic national policy — to gather sufficient information to formulate sound policy and protect human life. Reliable data, not dubious analyses or fear-mongering from the media, should drive social and economic policies.
It’s time for Georgia and all of America to get back to work.
John Safranek is an ER physician in Columbus Community Hospital, in Columbus, Neb., and author of “The Myth of Liberalism: An Account of Freedom” (2015).
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