/ Articles / In states and in politics, resistance grows to lockdowns
Virus appears less deadly than originally believed
With more than 16 million American having filed new unemployment claims in just three weeks and thousands of businesses shuttered — 35% of small businesses say they are less than two months away from permanent closure, according to a U.S. Chamber of Commerce survey — and with a growing concern about the suspension of civil liberties, a growing number of protests are pushing back against the unprecedented lockdowns that have swept the United States.
In North Carolina, for example, a group calling itself Reopen North Carolina gained 33,087 members within a week. In Michigan, citizens opposed to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s lockdown measures pushed back more aggressively. In her latest order, one of the most restrictive in the nation, Whitmer banned residents from driving from one home they own to another and closed portions of stores in areas she deemed were nonessential for public business.
A Republican state representative, Michele Hoitenga, called Whitmer’s measures radical.
“Not only did Gov. Whitmer not adopt the new federal CISA recommendations that would allow certain businesses back to work safely, she went even further in restricting Michigan businesses and freedoms,” Hoitenga posted on Facebook. “Large stores must now close areas including garden centers, gardening supplies, paint, carpeting, flooring, furniture, and so forth. Travel for vacations or any other purpose is prohibited. As expected, this governor continues to go to radical extremes.”
In the streets, protesters were organizing a car-and-truck drive-by demonstration they hoped would attract thousands of vehicles to jam traffic in the Michigan capital of Lansing. A Facebook group called Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine had by Wednesday collected more than 3% of the state’s population with more than 330,000 members.
A change.org petition to recall Whitmer had garnered 240,000 signatures.
In Wisconsin, no such grassroots protests have stirred into being to challenge Gov. Tony Evers’ safer-at-home measures, while conservative groups have largely refrained from challenging the constitutionality of Evers’s lockdown order, choosing instead to lobby for relief for businesses both large and small.
One such association of groups calling itself the Free Market Coalition lobbied the Legislature in a letter for reforms that they believe would spark the economy, including such things as a moratorium on “non-essential” new regulations and directing state agencies to review rules and allow for rapid cuts to red tape.
That coalition consists of the MacIver Institute, Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, the Badger Institute, and Americans for Prosperity-Wisconsin.
Meanwhile, a coalition of 19 statewide business associations and 33 local chambers of commerce sent a letter to Evers calling on his administration to put together a plan that would allow the state’s economy to get moving again starting on April 24.
Groups signing onto the letter included the Alliance of Wisconsin Retailers, National Federation of Independent Business, the Wisconsin Dairy Alliance, Wisconsin Grocers Association, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, and the Wisconsin Restaurant Association, among others.
The letter asked Evers to provide certainty to employers and their employees.
“Restarting our economy will not happen overnight, and it likely will not be all at once,” Kurt Bauer, WMC president and CEO, said. “That is why the business community and Gov. Evers need to work together on a plan that determines what industries and what areas of Wisconsin can open safely, along with a timeline.”
The letter urged a date certain to begin the process of reopening the economy: April 24, when the Safer At Home order is set to expire.
“Wisconsin needs to bring certainty to workers and businesses alike by setting a firm date to begin the process of reopening our economy on April 24 — the end date for the Safer at Home order,” the letter stated. “To be clear, no one expects that our economy would go back to ‘business as usual’ on April 24. We understand that reopening will require a very strategic and well-planned approach that, over time, phases our economy back to an operational level that existed prior to any social distancing requirements.”
Many businesses simply cannot restart their operations on short notice, the letter continued.
“Employers must have lead time to recall furloughed employees back to work, make new hires to replace lost employees, restock supplies and raw materials, reengage their supply and distribution chains, and find a means to recapitalize their businesses to accomplish these steps,” the letter stated.
Was lockdown needed?
Against this backdrop, many have begun to question whether the lockdown was ever warranted, not merely from an economic perspective but from a public health viewpoint.
For one thing, as the disease has spread and progressed, it has seemed less and less deadly. Certainly, outside of the New York City and New Orleans areas and a few other specific locations, hospital systems have not been overwhelmed as anticipated.
Across the nation, thousands of hospitals workers have been laid off or furloughed or had their pay cut. The Mayo Clinic protected pay for workers through April 28, but then announced its executive leadership would take pay cuts through the end of the year, and, starting in May, senior manager salaries would be reduced by 15% and other salaried employees by 7%. Hourly workers could be furloughed.
Much of the collapsing revenue for hospitals is due to a suspension of nonessential elective surgeries and other procedures that provide many hospitals with a large percentage of their revenue.
But even in COVID-19 operations, the pressure for ICU critical care beds is declining. In Washington, officials abandoned a 250-bed field hospital the Army had erected. Even in New York, the New York Times reported, officials had estimated 140,000 hospital beds might be needed to treat coronavirus patients, but only 18,500 were being used by two weeks ago.
In Arizona, on April 12, the state had more than 900 ICU beds available, and in Fresno, Calif., fewer than 10% of its ICU beds had been needed as of April 14 — all significantly lower than had been projected.
Here in Wisconsin, the critical-care bed situation is also improving. As of April 14, there were 501 ICU beds available, an increase from April 10 when just 404 ICU beds were available, a decrease in demand of 19%.
But what about the deaths?
Of course the death toll can’t be ignored, but even there the disease doesn’t seem to be as dangerous as previously supposed.
As of Tuesday, April 14, about 21,000 Americans had died, with a projected 68,841 total deaths by July 7, or 19 weeks after the first reported death. That’s a high death toll, if it materializes (other projections have been wildly high), and scary without context, but it’s not inordinately worse than deaths during the 19-week 2017-18 flu season, which totaled a little more than 61,000.
Beyond the aggregate numbers, the flu targets a much broader swath of the population than does COVID-19, which takes its heaviest toll on the elderly and those with certain underlying conditions. To date, more people aged 100 and older have died from COVID-19 nationally than those under the age of 30 combined, and the same holds true in Wisconsin.
Indeed, as of April 14 in Wisconsin, 21 individuals aged 90 and over had died of COVID-19; there were zero deaths under the age of 30, though there are far more people under 30.
By comparison, this flu season, more than 4.5% of flu deaths nationally are under the age of 35 (the reporting group), while just .01% of COVID deaths are in that age group.
Of the 170 total COVID-19 deaths recorded as of April 14 in Wisconsin, 111 were over the age of 70 (65% of total deaths), as opposed to 25 deaths (or 14.7%) among people under the age of 60. Of those under 60 who have COVID-19, the survival rate in Wisconsin is 98.5%, as of Wednesday morning.
Critics say those numbers argue against a lockdown of the general population. And, they say, while those numbers may be of no comfort for the elderly, it does suggest that’s the population group (along with those with compromised immune systems and underlying conditions) the nation should focus its resources on as it emerges from stay-at-home orders.
And there’s another important point for the elderly: The vast majority of those with underlying conditions survive, too. As of April 13 in Wisconsin, for instance, the survival rate for those with COVID-19 who are 70 years old or older is over 84%.
That leaves a comparatively high death rate, of course, but even for older age groups the virus is far from an automatic death sentence.
One last thing to mention abut the death rates reported so far is they are likely inflated. For one thing, the CDC has issued controversial guidelines that allow COVID-19 to be listed on a death certificate as “probable” or “presumed” even if a definite diagnosis of COVID-19 cannot be made but is suspected or likely.
On Tuesday, April 14, for example, the New York Times announced on Twitter that New York City had decided to add to the COVID-caused death list more than 3,700 people who had never tested positive for the virus but were presumed to have died of it, pushing the city’s death toll past 10,000.
More important, the lack of testing and milder forms of the illness mean that many cases have gone unreported — one Iceland study shows as many as 50% of those who had the disease were asymptomatic and never knew they had it. Including them would lower death rates significantly.
Have the lockdowns been effective
To be sure, supporters of the lockdowns say the death numbers that now make the pandemic no worse or only a little worse than the flu would be a lot higher had the lockdowns not occurred.
Indeed, they point to the University of Washington ’s IHME modeling — the models the government uses — that on April 1 predicted 93,765 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S, with a range of between 41,399 and 177,381, for the first wave of the disease through Aug. 4.
As of April 10, with lockdowns in place, the IHME revised those numbers downward dramatically to 60,415 deaths through Aug. 4 — not even as high as the 2017-18 flu — and the estimates have remained in the 60s.
On NBC’s TODAY show, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, said the falling projections showed just how effective the lockdowns had been.
“The real data are telling us that it is highly likely that we’re having a definite positive effect by this mitigation things that we’re doing — this physical separation — so I believe we are going to see a downturn in that,” he said. “And it looks more like the 60,000 than the 100,000 to 200,000.”
The problem is, as former New York Times reporter and author Alex Berenson pointed out, the higher April 1 estimate was using the same assumptions the later models used to project the lower numbers, namely, they already assumed strict lockdowns and the country was following maximum social distancing, including stay-at-home orders.
Here’s how the IMHE explained its high estimate on April 1: “These estimates assume the strong continuation of statewide social distancing measures in places where they are already enacted, and future adoption within the next seven days in states without them. If such policies are relaxed or not implemented, the US could experience a higher COVID-19 death toll and hospital burden than what our models currently predict.”
At a White House briefing March 30 to unveil the grim high numbers of as many as 177,000 deaths, Dr. Deborah Birx also confirmed those numbers assumed strict stay-at-home orders.
“So in the model, and there’s a large confidence interval, and so it’s anywhere in the model between 80,000 and 160,000, maybe even potentially 200,000 people succumbing to this,” Birx said. “That’s with mitigation. In that model, they make full assumption that we continue doing exactly what we’re doing, but even better, in every metro area with a level of intensity.”
As Berenson later pointed out, the lockdown policies based upon those grim numbers did come to pass, as Birx wanted; what did not come to pass were the projected deaths. The lower numbers in the later model had nothing to do with the enactment of social distancing policies because those policies were already baked into the original model, Berenson wrote. The model was just wrong.
Then, too, there’s the matter of Sweden. In Sweden, a country which has gone against most of the rest of the world, there has been no lockdown, despite heavy criticism from other nations. And yet the country has fared no better or worse than those nations with lockdowns. In Sweden, the latest data from the use of intensive care beds (see graph below) shows that there never was a mountainous spike in serious illness despite the more relaxed approach to social distancing, where life proceeded with almost normalcy.
The number of newly enrolled intensive care patients remained between 51 and 56 between March 29 and April 13, with a few days of deceleration sprinkled in, and a hopeful decline since April 11. In other words, the curve has been flat.
As for deaths in Sweden, they topped 1,033 last week, and critics, observing that Sweden’s Nordic neighbors had fewer deaths, blamed the lack of a lockdown. But Sweden’s death totals were also lower than more locked down nations such as France, Great Britain, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands.
Sweden’s death total is also substantially lower than in Whitmer’s extremely locked down Michigan, where 1,768 had died as of Wednesday, April 15. Michigan has just about the same population as Sweden, a little less in fact.
In locked down Ireland, which also has less than half Sweden’s population, 406 deaths have been recorded, about the same death rate as in Sweden.
How easy to catch
A debate is going on about just how contagious COVID-19 is — the mainstream media line is that it is very contagious — but, whatever the truth (and no one study or even a few should be determinant of individual behavior), a number of studies and experts have questioned its transmission in settings other than close contact, and thus call into question the advisability of lockdowns whose very purposes are to isolate people in close contact.
The title of one study from Taiwan, “High transmissibility of COVID-19 near symptom onset,” seems to suggest the opposite, but context is all important. In the study, researchers monitored the symptoms of close contacts of 32 COVID-19 patients for 14 days.
“A total of 1,043 close contacts were identified,” the study stated. “Among them, 3.4% were household contacts, 4.5% were non-household family contacts, and 28.9% were health care contacts. The risk for COVID-19 infection (considering 12 transmitted cases) in the contacts was 1.2%, and the secondary clinical attack rate was 0.9% among all contacts.”
In sum, out of 1,043 contacts with 32 confirmed COVID-19 patients, there were 12 transmissions. Of those transmissions, seven occurred in household settings, and five were among non-household family contacts. There were no health care transmissions out of 301 close health care contacts and, more important, there were no transmissions among 659 other close contacts (defined as a person who did not wear appropriate personal protection equipment (PPE) while having face-to-face contact with a confirmed case for more than 15 minutes after symptom onset).
A similar study appeared in the The Lancet on March 13, “First known person-to-person transmission of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) in the USA.” In the study, a woman in her 60s returned from China in mid-January, 2020.
“One week later, she was hospitalized with pneumonia and tested positive for SARS-CoV-2,” the study stated. “Her husband did not travel but had frequent close contact with his wife. He was admitted eight days later and tested positive for SARS-CoV-2.”
Overall, the study continued, 372 contacts of both cases were identified; of those, 347 underwent active symptom monitoring, including 152 community contacts and 195 health care personnel. Of the monitored contacts, 43 became persons under investigation, in addition to the husband.
Ultimately, the study found, the 43 persons under investigation and all 32 asymptomatic health-care personnel tested negative for SARS-CoV-2.
What were the implications?
“Person-to-person transmission of SARS-CoV-2 occurred between two people with prolonged, unprotected exposure,” the researchers wrote. “No further transmission was detected, despite monitoring contacts for symptoms and testing all who developed fever, cough, or shortness of breath and testing a convenience sample of asymptomatic health care professional contacts.”
Finally, in a press conference this past week, Dr. Hendrik Streeck, a professor of virology and the director of the Institute of Virology and HIV Research at the University of Bonn, said a study in the Covid-stricken region of Heinsberg, Germany — that nation’s COVID-19 epicenter — found no significant risk of catching the disease by going shopping.
“Severe outbreaks of the infection were always a result of people being closer together over a longer period of time, for example the après ski parties in Ischgl, Austria,” he said at the news conference.
Streeck also said there was no evidence of “living” viruses on surfaces.
“When we took samples from door handles, phones or toilets it has not been possible to cultivate the virus in the laboratory on the basis of these swabs,” he said.
Richard Moore is the author of the forthcoming “Storyfinding: From the Journey to the Story” and can be reached at richardmoorebooks.com.