Friday, July 17, 2020

Until it’s Safe Means NEVER

It seems to me in our COVID haze we’ve allowed the media to transport us from a “flatten the curve” proposition to a “until it’s safe” world. When leaders decided we must shutdown the world and isolate ourselves two months ago we were told that it was absolutely imperative that we flatten the curve to give ourselves time to prepare the healthcare system. We saw what was happening in Italy (a poor comparison to the U.S.) and imagined what might happen if hundreds of thousands couldn’t get the proper care. So even though this shutdown seemed a fantastical overreaction in historical terms, we listened to the medical experts, believed their models, and cooperated with their plan.

Somewhere between then and now a new supposition has crept in and a new impossible standard has replaced “flatten the curve.” We now live in the “until it is safe” world. Now I hear my friends talking about how they won’t go back to normal until we can prove it’s “safe.” Under this standard the shutdowns and forced isolations could continue a VERY long time. They are echoing the media and political leaders. Already the cost of this shutdown method of addressing the health risks has been WAY TOO HIGH!! — It’s true there is a lot we don’t know about COVID — but we know for certain that some people who get it die AND the vast majority recover. We also know who is at the highest risk of death.

With the exception of New York City and a few hot spots, we have not seen the healthcare system stressed and we have made huge strides in preparation in a few months. Now, instead of collapsing healthcare systems from COVID, we see hospitals empty, healthcare workers furloughed, empty field hospitals and mercy ships being decommissioned, and countless needy and non-COVID ill waiting to seek medical care. We’ve flattened the curve with the unintended consequence of flattening then healthcare system in a different way.

We are told that this is good news because we are winning the battle against COVID. We are told that COVID is under control as a direct result of national shutdowns, isolation, and social distancing but we are warned that the situation is fragile and if we “open up” too quickly or too soon it will be very deadly. The problem with repeating these claims a second time is that we now have data that supports a reasonable doubt In the underlying “flatten the curve” supposition.

Around the world we have countries responding to COVID in their own unique ways which has created a valuable laboratory from which to gain understanding about how the virus behaves in relation to our behavior. In the US this same local response has been a valuable way to measure (though not perfectly) the nature of this virus. Reasonable medical professionals and scientists have observed that shutdowns and social isolation mitigations have not been statistically significant of COVID lethality. Yet, leaders say the shutdowns, isolation, social distancing, mask wearing, must continue but their language has undergone a subtle shift. 

The oft repeated call to “flatten the curve” has been replaced with assurances that these strict measures are needed to keep us safe and save lives. The hash tag that most illustrates this shift is #StayHomeSAVEaLIFE. Now in some U.S. states Governors are clamping down on their shutdown orders under the newly shifted supposition that we can’t return to normal until its “safe.” It’s no longer a “flatten the curve” proposition, and clearly the health of our healthcare system is no longer the aim, since we are damaging that as well as all other business activity in the U.S. No, the supposition has shifted and there are many state and local leaders who passionately want the shutdowns, isolation, social distancing, and mask wearing to go on until it’s “safe,” and even then they speak of not going back but rather settling into a new normal. Not only is it an impossible standard it is subject to extreme interpretation — Is “until it’s safe” code for until we have a vaccine and everyone is vaccinated? OR is it simply — “until it’s safe” means NEVER.

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