As the daily number of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continues a slow but steady decline, the case to reopen the state for business is already strong. But here’s a deeper look at the evidence and data that underpin Governor Ron DeSantis‘s expected announcement set for Wednesday morning – once he has a look at a task force report on the matter:
Item 1: Model forecasts were wildly exaggerated. There is no credible evidence that hospitals will be overwhelmed if we reopen.
The models relied on by experts predicting dire numbers of dying or critically-ill patients flooding into Florida hospitals have been wrong, some embarrassingly so. Elected officials across the country pointed to those projections as one of the driving forces in the decision to shut down the economy. In Florida, for example, available hospital bed capacity hovered consistently above 20,000 beds, ultimately flexing up to 23,000 as fewer prospective patients with other ailments stayed away. We’re still at over 22,000 beds available right now.
One particular model, widely cited by news organizations and elected officials alike, is produced by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME). That model played a significant role not only in the decision to lock down the economy, but also in the mid-March decision to build emergency field hospitals at five predicted hotspots around the state. IHME’s model projected COVID-19 hospitalizations would ultimately peak in early May at nearly 17,000 hospitalized patients, dangerously close to the 20,000 bed limit. And that was just the median number!
Side note: IHME’s model may be wrong, but at least it’s less wrong than the borderline criminal predictions by some so-called “data scientists” (these are primarily Silicon Valley types with a history of political activism in Democrat Party politics) who built the COVID Act Now! website and pushed their terrifying charts into the all-too-eager news media in virtually every state.
Still, IHME’s worst-case scenario projected a nightmarish 50,000 beds could be needed by May 3rd (light purple shaded area):
For DeSantis, those kinds of forecasts presented him with few options. The economic downside of a lockdown would be bad, but if the projections were correct, failing to lock down the state could result in a catastrophe far worse. It was a dice-roll, and he clearly didn’t appreciate having his hand forced. DeSantis addressed the blown forecasts in a press conference last week:
“Now we’re in a situation where we know the hospitals are not going to get overrun, we know the number one thing that people were concerned about with this was that type of catastrophe. That’s not going to happen. That’s not happened. We have all these extra beds and field hospitals and nobody’s there.”
Note that he also acknowledged the initial reason for the lockdown was to prevent hospitals from getting overrun, and he blatantly stated that not only has it not happened yet, he said “it’s not going to happen.”
Given the fact that the entire rationale for the lockdown in the first place was to prevent the hospital overrun, this should be enough evidence to start returning to normal. But there’s plenty more reasons…
ITEM 2: The real infection rate is much higher, meaning the death rate is substantially lower than we feared
Early last week, new evidence emerged out of California suggesting that coronavirus infections arrived much sooner than we think and infected far more people than we think, in turn suggesting COVID-19 isn’t nearly as deadly as we think.
First came a pair of studies, one released by the University of Stanford and the other by the University of Southern California. Both caught fire on the internet after researchers claimed COVID-19 infections could be significantly higher than previously thought. The Stanford-backed study suggested cases could be 85 times more prevalent than the number of confirmed cases, while the USC study suggested infections might be 55 times higher based on the presence of antibodies in test subjects who had never shown any symptoms of the virus.
While many opposing the lockdown seized upon the results, the studies were met with skepticism by statistics experts for a number of reasons, including small sample sizes and a high-enough potential for false positives that they could nullify the entire study.
Then came New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Just as some news organizations worked overtime to pan the studies, Cuomo dropped a bombshell of his own: according to New York’s own antibody studies, one in five New Yorkers may have already had COVID-19. That puts the rate in New York somewhere between 10-20 times the number of confirmed cases. Sure, it’s a lot lower than the California studies, but the numbers are still eye-popping.
Four days ago, the Miami Herald scraped together enough money to pay a reporter to publish the results of a similar study conducted by the University of Miami. The results were nothing less than stunning:
About 6 percent of Miami-Dade’s population — about 165,000 residents — have antibodies indicating a past infection by the novel coronavirus, dwarfing the state health department’s tally of about 10,600 cases, according to preliminary study results announced by University of Miami researchers Friday.
Again, the results are preliminary, and thus subject to change, but if those numbers are even close, it gives a death rate only slightly higher than influenza: 0.18 percent, nowhere near the 5.7 percent death rate currently being bandied about, even by the reknowned medical experts at Johns Hopkins.
Also consider the high likelihood that the number of actual deaths attributable to coronavirus is much lower than currently claimed. DeSantis acknowledged this important point in last week’s press conference as well, when he lamented that Florida counts any death with coronavirus as a death from coronavirus. There is ample evidence to suggest deaths from COVID-19 may be vastly overstated when controlling for other potential causes of death:
Take, for example, a New Yorker who is mildly sick. She calls her family doctor who makes a clinical diagnosis of suspected COVID-19 based on her symptoms, rather than with a test. Because she is not very sick, she is advised to stay home. There is no mechanism for her doctor to report her diagnosis to the health authorities, so if she gets better, she is never counted. Only if she becomes ill enough to be admitted to the hospital, or is tested, is she counted as a COVID-19 case. If she dies, she is counted as a COVID-19 death. If she survives, she will not be counted at all. (Source: World Economic Forum)
All of the above leads us to…
ITEM 3: Fear of coronavirus is excessive and driving some to act like scared, selfish idiots
How long should we, as a community, a state, or a nation, hide from a virus that is rapidly fading, even as we expect others to put themselves at risk to deliver custom-ordered burritos, keep the internet and electrical grid functioning, and grocery store shelves stocked? From a recent social media post sent to me:
There are those that rely on all kinds of people to supply them while they cower in fear at home.
They expect their garbage to be picked up, the grocery store to remain open so they can get milk, truck drivers to supply the stores, farmers, meatpackers, fruit and vegetable pickers all to keep food in that grocery store.
They expect Amazon to ship all the things they’re ordering while they have the privilege to work and shop from home. They expect the delivery driver to leave “essential” supplies on their doorstep, while also expecting their phone service to work, their power to stay on, and their mail to show up in rain, sleet, or shine.
And most important, they expect doctors and nurses to be there for them the instant they detect a sniffle, or a tickle in their throat. Meanwhile, many of those health care workers across the country have been furloughed because their units and services have been shut down because the entire system is solely focused on COVID19.
The whole premise of shelter in place is based on the arrogant idea that others must risk their health so we can protect ours. There is nothing virtuous about ignoring the largely invisible army required to allow people to shelter in place.
Oof! That hits right in the gut.
Of course, re-opening businesses across the state carries some risk that we could catch coronavirus, and perhaps reignite the outbreak, but some experts believe the stay-at-home order hasn’t been all that effective. Consider this hot take from a New York City ER doc who gives four reasons why it’s time to re-open:
First, the wave has crested. At 1 p.m. April 7, the COVID-19 arrivals slowed down. It was a discrete, noticeable event. Stretchers became available by 5 p.m., and the number of arriving COVID-19 patients dropped below the number discharged, transferred or deceased.
This was striking, because the community I serve is poor. Some are homeless. Most work in “essential,” low-paying jobs, where distancing isn’t easy. Nevertheless, the wave passed over us, peaked and subsided. The way this transpired tells me the ebb and flow had more to do with the natural course of the outbreak than it did with the lockdown.
Second, I worry about non-coronavirus care. While the inpatient units remain busy with sick COVID-19 patients, our ER has been quiet for more than a week. We usually average 240 patients a day. For the last week, we averaged fewer than 100. That means our patients in this diverse, low-income community are afraid to come to the ER for non-COVID care.
Third, inordinate fear misguides the public response. While COVID-19 is serious, fear of it is being over-amplified. The public needs to understand that the vast majority of infected people do quite well.
Finally, COVID-19 is more prevalent than we think. Many New Yorkers already have the COVID-19 infection, whether they are aware of it or not. As of today, over 43 percent of those tested are positive in The Bronx. We are developing a significant degree of natural herd immunity. Distancing works, but I am skeptical that it is playing as predominant a role as many think.
While the observations made are anecdotal, the entire piece is worth a read – a voice from the front lines of the coronavirus fight arguing that it’s time to reopen.
ITEM 4: Florida’s economic devastation is significant and will take longer than other states to recover
Tourism is the backbone of Florida’s economy. Our state features world-class theme parks, beaches, resorts, and restaurants that attracted over 100 million visitors last year alone, each of them bringing with them hundreds or even thousands of dollars to spend while they are here.
Even if we lifted the lockdown tomorrow, it’s going to take a long time before people start to save enough money to even go on vacation, let alone feel comfortable enough to visit a tightly packed restaurant, stand in line with 200 other people at a theme park to experience the latest thrill-ride, or go to a packed stadium or arena to cheer their favorite athletes and artists.
That is why Florida’s economy will likely be among the hardest hit and slowest to recover among all 50 states. Our unemployment picture went from the lowest in history to the highest in history within the span of a few days. It’s one thing to bend the coronavirus curve down. But the unemployment “curve” doesn’t exist right now – it’s a sheer, vertical cliff going straight up, to previously unimaginable heights, and until we return to some semblance of normalcy, it’ll only keep growing.
If there’s a single curve that needs to be flattened, the unemployment curve is it, and DeSantis is painfully aware of it.