On Friday, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves will announce the next phase in this state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s a tough call, as Reeves has to balance between what the health experts are telling him and his own growing worry that the escalating economic disaster may be more precarious for this state than the coronavirus.
In the past month, while the U.S. has shed 22 million jobs after deciding to commit economic suicide to reduce the spread of the virus, Mississippi has lost nearly 130,000. That’s more than a 30-fold increase of what would be typical for this state during that period of time. The shock led Reeves to blurt out Thursday in a tweet, “This is insane — the bleeding has to stop. ... Our people can’t take much more.”
So what should he do as he tries to balance the potential loss of life and the potential despair of those individuals and businesses thrown into financial disaster?
He should go back to his first instinct, which was to take a targeted approach to this health crisis rather than a blanket one.
Initially, Reeves said that, guided by the experts and the data, he would impose restrictions, such as “shelter in place” orders, at those areas identified as COVID-19 hot spots. He tried it briefly in one county, then abandoned the approach and ordered a statewide partial lockdown that is due to expire on Monday morning.
Although some of the provisions of that order should be continued to protect the most vulnerable parts of the population — such as keeping nursing homes and hospitals off limits to visitors except in extreme, end-of-life circumstances — other parts, such as the closure of so-called nonessential businesses, should only be applied in those counties where the number of hospitalizations and deaths on a per-capita basis justifies it.
Forget about infection numbers. Those are not a great gauge of the severity of an outbreak, since they are heavily dependent on how much testing is actually taking place in an area. What matters is not how many people get COVID-19, since for most of them the infection has little to no physical impact. What matters is how many people have such a bad reaction that they require hospitalization or die.
Reeves is a numbers guy. He should be able to consult with the scientists and the statisticians and come up with hospitalization and mortality ratios, based on a county’s population, that trigger heavy restrictions on commerce and social gatherings while letting the rest of the state move back toward normal as long as their numbers stay below those thresholds.
It may mean that some counties will go in and out of lockdowns until a cure or vaccination is discovered, or enough herd immunity is acquired that the threat naturally dissipates. Still, that is better than treating the entire state as if the risk factors and hospital capacities are identical.
Certainly, it would be preferable if this state and this nation had the testing capacity to screen everyone for COVID-19, but that appears to be a long way off. We’ve been at this now for more than a month, and still the only people being tested are those who are showing significant symptoms. It’s not practicable to leave the economy on life support while we wait for the development and mass production of reliable, accurate tests.
In those areas where restrictions are eased, people can make their own choices of whether to stay hunkered down and avoid others. They can sacrifice their financial well-being so as not to risk their physical health, if that is their choice.
But neither they nor their government should force that choice on everyone else where the measurable severity of the outbreak doesn’t support it.