Ortiz & Gray: Flatten the COVID-19 Fear

In this Friday, March 20, 2020, file photo, as beachgoers are seen in the background, yellow caution tape wrapped across Waikiki in Honolulu. Hawaii's governor has instituted a mandatory 14-day self quarantine starting Thursday, March 27, of all people traveling to the state as part of efforts to fight the …
AP Photo/Marco Garcia

“When the facts change,” said 20th-century economist John Maynard Keynes, “I change my mind.”

State governors and public health officials should follow this example in light of recent CDC data showing that Covid-19 is much less deadly than originally thought. The CDC recently revised its death rate estimate down to just 0.4 percent. And for many demographics, it is far less than that.

Public officials should pivot from “flattening the curve” to “flattening the fear.” The data demonstrate that younger and otherwise healthy Americans face little risk of dying from this disease. Most people should immediately get back to living their daily lives without fear, boosting our beleaguered economy.

One percent of counties in the country account for more than half of all Covid deaths. Ten percent of counties account for more than 90 percent of all deaths. Nearly half of the counties in the country haven’t experienced a single coronavirus death.

Yet safe counties are often beholden to state reopening timelines based on conditions in major cities where Covid is often far more prevalent. Keeping these areas that have been relatively untouched by the coronavirus closed for business is a violation of residents’ basic civil liberties and is unnecessarily contributing to our dire economic situation.

According to a recent analysis by Avik Roy at Forbes, 42 percent of all coronavirus deaths have come in nursing homes. In many states, nursing homes and assisted living facilities account for far more than half of all deaths—81 percent in Minnesota and 70 percent in Ohio. If governments pursued a tailored Covid response moving forward, protecting nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and the most vulnerable, we could dramatically reduce the Covid death rate while letting the vast majority of Americans resume something akin to a normal life.

We can isolate the few to protect the many instead of isolating the many to protect the few.

Like location, age is also a strong risk indicator. According to the most recent CDC data, more than 80 percent of all Covid deaths are among those over 65 years old. Those aged under 55 account for just seven percent of all Covid deaths. And the overwhelming majority of deaths are among those with at least one other underlying medical condition. It’s irrational for young and healthy people to live in fear of this disease.

The original intent of flattening the curve was to not overwhelm our healthcare system. By working together, we have accomplished this goal. With this accomplished, government officials, business leaders, and the media must now flatten the fear—the consequences of which are just as dire as the disease. Our nation is paralyzed because people are paralyzed by fear.

Over the last ten weeks, more than 40 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits, and one-third of small businesses won’t reopen. These numbers represent real people with lost paychecks and shattered dreams.

Economic consequences breed societal problems. Alcohol and drug abuse have skyrocketed, with hard liquor sales up by about 75 percent. Prescriptions for anti-anxiety medication are up by about one-third. Community experts worry about associated spikes in domestic violence and suicides.

The national Disaster Distress Helpline saw a 338 percent increase in call volume in March compared with February. Suicide rates generally rise by about one percent for every one percentage point increase in unemployment.

Patients are avoiding necessary care due to unnecessary hospital restrictions against seeing non-emergency patients. Oncologists, who treat cancer patients, have recently seen their patient counts fall by nearly half. Sadly, we will have more victims of Covid who never had the virus.

Extending stay-at-home orders could cause “irreparable damage,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the lead member of the White House coronavirus task force, on May 22nd. “I don’t want people to think that any of us feel that staying locked down for a prolonged period of time is the way to go.”

The facts are in. Covid poses a low risk to ordinary Americans, yet Covid fear poses an enormous risk to our society. Flattening the fear will not only save lives and livelihoods but help prevent the unraveling of the fabric of American life.

Alfredo Ortiz is the president and CEO of the Job Creators Network. C.L. Gray is the president and founder of Physicians for Reform and a physician in western North Carolina.

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