OK, enough with the History Wars/Cancel Culture stuff (for now)! Let’s turn to something relatively uncontroversial (!) – like the resurgence of CCP Virus cases in the United States. And in particular, let’s focus on the common argument that these increases, along with higher hospitalization rates, show conclusively that the states that closed late or reopened early or never closed or never closed much (you get the picture), were tragically and even recklessly mistaken, and that the states that closed early or stayed closed for the longest and have reopened only very gradually were the truly responsible actors.
There’s one set of actions that certainly seems to clinch the case for the “closers” – the decisions of many of the late closing/early opening states to pause or slow their reopenings, or even roll back many. According to this report, the number of states and cities taking such steps now totals 15.
But this loudly nagging question remains: What’s the actual evidence that supposedly irresponsible reopening measures have caused either the growing case or even hospitalization numbers? Pretty flimsy, as it turns out.
Let’s begin with Arizona – widely described as a quintessential reopening disaster. It’s true that confirmed virus cases have shot up since very late May, with new daily cases per hundred thousand residents soaring from 248.5 on May 27 to 1,063.9 on June 28. That’s about a four-fold increase. (All such infection figures and change come from the Washington Post‘s continually updated virus tracker feature.)
But figuring out the impact of shutdown-type policies involves not only identifying how many new cases and other indicators have worsened recently. It much more importantly involves comparing rates of worsening during the shutdown periods and afterwards.
In Arizona’s case, Republican Governor Doug Ducey began imposing limits in mid-March, and canceled school for the remainder of the current academic year and issued a stay-at-home order on the 30th. (My Arizona dates come from this timeline.) On that day, new case numbers stood at 16.7 per hundred thousand. On May 11, he decided to reopen restaurants. On that day, new cases hit 163.8 per hundred thousand – meaning that they.rose a little less than ten-fold during the shutdown.
As described above, the latest Arizona numbers show 1,063.9 new daily cases. So during reopening phase, the state’s new daily case numbers rose about 6.5-fold. In other words, cases rose much more slowly during the reopening phase (which Ducey paused as of yesterday) as it did during the shutdown phase. So that’s supposed to be evidence that its shutdown policies have been reckless?
Even taking into account the laws of large and small numbers (which teach that the lower the absolute number baseline you begin with, the easier it is to produce big percentage gains), I’m glad I don’t have to use them to strengthen the case for stricter reopenings – if only because the virus seems to spread so rapidly. As a result, independent of improving testing rates (which themselves should be revealing more cases), the rate of infections should be speeding up the more infections are recorded, not slowing down.
Even harder to explain from the standpoint of shutdown enthusiasts: On March 30, when the state’s major shutdown phase began, Arizona CCP Virus-related daily hospitalizations stood at 51 (total). By May 11, when major reopening began, it had fallen to 41. Since hospitalization rates are often called the most important measure of progress or backsliding against the virus, that’s a big sign that shutdowns work, right?
Not exactly. For yesterday’s new hospitalization number (the latest available) was only two. In all fairness, between the start of major reopening and June 8, this number doubled – from 41 to 82. But since then, the daily hospitalization rate has sunk like a stone. Even granted the reality of lags between new case identifications and hospitalizations, these figures make clear that the state of Arizona’s economy and the regulations governing activity have had no discernible impact on its new case numbers or its hospitalization numbers.
Of course, Arizona’s only one state. So let’s look at another – and the biggest in terms of population. That’s of course, California. Even better, California was a state praised for shutting down early and aggressively, and has reopened cautiously – till very recently, when it mandated some rollbacks. And its experience strengthens the case for sweeping shutdowns not one iota.
California’s new case numbers have been rising, too – though without the recent spike seen in Arizona. Even so, they’re now at an all-time daily high as well: with 553.1 new cases per hundred thousand residents. This total is only a little over half of Arizona’s latest, which would seem to reenforce the case for stricter shutdown policies. But again, that’s not the new case statistic that deserves the most attention. It’s imperative to look at California’s new daily cases and how they’ve changed during both the state’s shutdown phase and its reopening phase.
The Golden State’s Democratic Governor, Gavin Newsom, issued a state-wide stay-at-home order on that went into effect March 19 — actually, not so very different from when Arizona’s shutdowns began in earnest, though they were narrower. That day, the state’s reported cases per 100,000 residents stood at 2.6.
On May 8, California began a gradual reopening. That day, its reported cases per 100,000 residents was 159.7, meaning that during the shutdown, they skyrocketed by 61 times. Because the latest such figure is 553.1 per thousand, the rate of increase during the reopening was 2.46 times. Again, not results that speak well for the spread-inhibiting record of shutdowns.
The California hospitalization story is more complicated than Arizona’s – but anything but a slam dunk for shutdown supporters. The state tracks hospitalization differently from that of its neighbor, recording daily changes in net hospitalizations (i.e., admissions minus discharges). What the numbers show, according to this chart, is that is that shortly after the stay-at-home order went into effect (March 20), they fell pretty steadily through very early June,stayed roughly level until the middle of the month, and soared thereafter.
What’s especially interesting about these figures is that they seem completely unrelated to the shutdown phase and the reopening. After all, net hospitalizations kept falling for nearly a full month after the gradual reopening began (though at a somewhat slower rate). And the big increase in net hospitalization that began in mid-June didn’t start until some five weeks after the reopening. As a result, I don’t see much of a shutdown/reopening connection there, either.
It’s certainly possible that reopening decisions helped increase infection rates by encouraging Americans in those states to believe that all was clear, and that life could go back to normal, without any mask-wearing or social distancing and the like. But which state governors have made those claims? It’s more likely that many residents of those states decided to throw caution to the wind regardless of what officials said – which doesn’t speak well for them, although it also doesn’t say much about the enforceability of shutdowns. What’s the alternative, however? Handing state and local officials China-like powers? Raise your hand if you’d be happy with that outcome.
Moreover, these shutdown/reopening figures tell us nothing about another, and too often neglected, crucial dimension of the virus policy debate – what are the public health costs of prolonged continuation of shutdowns? Heart Disease Patients’ and Victims of Depression’s Lives Matter, too, after all.
So far, it seems clear that, like crises and other difficult situations in general, the keys to dealing with the CCP Virus pandemic won’t be hyping clearcut formulas, false either-or-choices, and declarations of certainty as ringing as they are unjustified and blame-casting. There’s still no substitute for good judgment, common sense (and yes, that includes mask-wearing when in crowded indoor spaces, steering clear of them and outdoor crowds as much as possible, and washing your hands fanatically), and an ability to learn. What a shame that the national stockpiles of those qualities seem so meager.