The amazing thing about COVID-19 is how much we still don’t know. Even the experts don’t quite understand the nature of the virus or how we should respond. Due to their evolving understanding, we have seen quite a bit of change in the guidance they give to the public — which is fine, as long as they remain transparent. More than anything else, we need more explanation and more honesty from our authorities.
Our government began the coronavirus health communications with a lie. The surgeon general of the United States tweeted on Feb. 29: “Seriously people — STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus.”
He went on to explain that masks were in short supply and needed for health care workers. That second part is true. If the surgeon general and others in our government had told people that, my strong guess is most Americans would have done all they could to make sure health care workers got what they needed. But instead of telling the truth, the government coupled their scarcity message with an absolute lie — that masks wouldn’t be helpful for anyone anyway.
Masks help with communicable diseases like COVID-19. This is accepted in medicine, and other countries have no debate about this. Since this initial lie, our government has put out guidance recommending mask use when leaving the home.
The point here is not to harp on a now month-old lie but to encourage better communication as we proceed. The government initially forecast 100,000 to 200,000 COVID-19 deaths in the United States. They are now forecasting 60,000 deaths. Was this just an honest change as our knowledge advanced, or were the first numbers an attempt to scare people into taking this virus more seriously? It’s a fair question to ask, considering our government’s willingness to lie in order to trick people out of buying face masks. Lies erode trust and reduce confidence in the people and institutions that tell them — and if we ever needed confidence in our institutions, it’s now.
The difference between 200,000 deaths and 60,000 deaths is huge. We have all done a lot of social distancing, of course — but social distancing was supposed to be built into the first model. The model also predicted that we would be overwhelming hospitals all over the country by now. We are seeing worn-out doctors, for sure, but hospitals have not been as overwhelmed as the models predicted.
What accounts for these huge differences, and how should this all change what we do going forward? These are pretty important questions that almost nobody is asking.
We have a politicized press corps focused on bashing President Donald Trump and ignoring the big picture. Night after night, we get questions about why Trump is endorsing hydroxychloroquine (why wouldn’t he, by the way?) and how many ventilators will be in each location. Some of those are important questions, but they’re not as important as asking what we should do next and how what we are doing now makes sense. Nobody’s asking these questions. Does anybody know the answers?
The key to understanding what we do next is knowing what we have accomplished to date. We have certainly slowed the spread of this disease by hiding in our homes. The question is, what happens when we come out? If even a few people still carry the virus, shouldn’t we expect the disease to just ramp right up again? Nobody has explained this clearly.
If a vaccine were imminent, then all this would make sense. But a vaccine is a year or two away. Our current plan would make sense if the experts believed we had such a huge level of asymptomatic cases that many people would have developed an immunity by the time we ease mitigation efforts. This cycle would lead to an evolving herd immunity that would eventually protect us from the disease. That would be an amazing outcome, but I have not heard any of our experts predict that we have the level of asymptomatic penetration to make this work. Even if this herd immunity strategy is possible, we would need widespread antibody testing to let people know if they have had the disease and if they have the antibodies to give them immunity going forward. How long until we have widespread antibody testing? It’s supposed to be available starting in May, but there has been little discussion on how this will roll out or when, precisely, tests will be available.
Finally, even if we do work out a way for young and healthy people to get back to work, the other question we don’t hear much about is who’s going to protect the older and more vulnerable Americans. Don’t we need some sort of program to help those that need it? If you are 85 years old, formerly self-sufficient and now can’t leave to go to a crowded grocery store, who’s going to help you? It’s an amazing opportunity for a new sense of national charitable purpose. Let’s help those who have given so much to our country. Is anyone working on a plan like this? I haven’t heard a word about it, if so.
So, why haven’t we heard much about these big issues? These are matters people are talking about at dinner tables all around the country. We have a lot of smart, good-hearted people leading our national response to the virus. But even the best people don’t always have answers.
Our strategy cannot be to stay in our houses for 18 months until we have a vaccine. The average American had less than $4,000 in savings going into this crisis. Nearly 60% of Americans had less than $1,000. The hardship people are facing is deadly serious. We need to get to work. How do we do that? We need someone to clearly explain the plan. Tell the truth. We can take it.
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