A Perspective on Covid-19 by Kevin Diehl
Updated: May 11, 2020
I’m writing this blog during the time of “The Great Shut-in.” At this point, no one knows how long it’ll last, or how much worse it might get. The situation changes so rapidly that it’s difficult writing about it. But, herewith, a few observations that should remain timely.
Since about Christmastime, as we watched COVID-19 make its way round the globe from China to our shores, virtually none of us envisioned the sort of drastic measures that would be taken to slow its spread. Looking back, it seems like the two main events that sent us into a frenzied overdrive occurred within hours of one another. First, a professional basketball player tested positive for the disease, prompting the NBA to shut down the whole league. That same night, Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson – in Australia to film a movie – announced they had both contracted the virus.
Taken together, the two announcements had a cascading effect. The shelves were already barren of toilet paper. But after the NBA and Hanks news, the dominoes fell quickly. The NCAA basketball tournament – an event that had taken place every year since 1939, without interruption even through World War II – was canceled. Major
League Baseball’s spring training was halted, and the start of the season put on hold. Other sports – hockey, golf, NASCAR – rapidly followed suit.
Those were all nation-wide cancellations. Then, closer to home, things started hitting closer to home. On March 12, Governor Mike DeWine announced that Ohio’s schools would close for at least three weeks, starting on March 16. We were the first state to close schools. Suddenly we went from the minor annoyance of some missed sporting events to a major disruption of people’s lives.
Three days before the school closures, on March 9, Governor DeWine had issued Executive Order 2020-01D. That order declared a state of emergency in Ohio. At the time, there were three reported cases and no deaths in our state.
In the executive order, DeWine stated, “I, Mike DeWine, Governor of the State of Ohio, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution, the laws of this State and in accordance with Section 5502.22 of the Ohio Revised Code, do hereby order…a state of emergency.”
The emergency declaration was a necessary prerequisite for the school closings and the other things that followed. And other things did indeed follow.
As we were all still adjusting to the closed schools and the canceled sporting events, the other shoe dropped, a giant, steel-toed boot. The governor announced on Sunday, March 15, that restaurants, bars and other gathering places would have to close their doors at 9pm that same evening. Only carryout and drive-thru would be allowed.
This was an extraordinary step. The government was ordering private businesses to cease operation. When I heard the news, it made me wonder – under what authority did the governor shutter privately owned enterprises? As it turns out, he didn’t actually have the authority. But the Director of the Department of Health did.
Our state law – the aforementioned Ohio Revised Code – states in Section 3701.13 that: “The department of health shall have supervision of all matters relating to the preservation of the life and health of the people and have ultimate authority in matters of quarantine and isolation, which it may declare and enforce, when neither exist, and modify, relax, or abolish, when either has been established (emphasis added).”
So once the governor had declared the state of emergency, Ohio law gave “ultimate authority in matters of quarantine and isolation” to the Director of the
Department of Health. (We’ll look further into the historical context for these powers, their intended rational use, and what “quarantine” and “isolation” mean in a separate blog.)
Some people have likened what we’re going through to a war. That made me think of a (perhaps imperfect) analogy: During World War II, when our B-17 bombers approached their target, the pilot would hand over control of the plane to the bombardier, who would guide the aircraft over the bombing objective. In essence, during the time of a health emergency, the governor hands over the controls to the health director, who, in this case, is Dr. Amy Acton.
Dr. Acton has been a physician for 25 years. Before becoming health director, she was an assistant professor in Ohio State University’s College of Public Health for seven years.
It’s probably safe to assume that Dr. Acton never imagined that she would become a household name wielding such awesome power when she accepted the offer to serve on DeWine’s cabinet. After all, when was the last time that you could name the state’s health director? Was it never, like me? Now, Dr. Acton is on our televisions everyday, issuing orders and answering questions.
The day after the restaurants were closed, Governor DeWine announced that he wanted to cancel Ohio’s primary election, scheduled for the next day. It would take a separate blog to follow the convoluted action that ensued between the courts and the governor in the 20-or-so hours between DeWine’s announcement and the actual cancellation of the primary, but in the end Dr. Acton’s authority came to bear once more.
It is an enormous burden that Dr. Acton has inherited. Her words suddenly carry great weight, as she learned perhaps the hard way. During a press conference on March 13, she dropped a bombshell, stating that over 100,000 Ohioans were infected. She said, “We know now, just the fact of community spread, says that at least 1 percent, at the very least, 1 percent of our population is carrying this virus in Ohio today. We have 11.7 million people. So the math is over 100,000. So that just gives you a sense of how this virus spreads and is spreading quickly.” Governor DeWine repeated her claims, saying that experts had informed them that the number would double in the next six days.
This was frightening news. At a time when there were only 14 reported cases and no deaths in our state, and only about 150,000 cases worldwide, the health director was telling us that there were already over 100,000 of us infected just here in Ohio.
But the next day, on a national news channel, Dr. Acton backed away from her previous claim, stating that “we don’t know the exact number of Ohioans because we haven’t been able to test and we don’t yet have the exact (computer) models that will tell us. I think there was some confusion in my remarks, and partly because I am tired, but what we did know is that we assumed community spread already because we weren’t able to test.”
She explained that they had depended on computer models created by “some of the best people who created the epidemic curve.” At a later news conference, she said, “I am not saying there are absolutely for certain 100,000 people, I’m saying I’m guesstimating.”
None of this is meant to cast aspersions on Dr. Acton or Governor DeWine. They are trying to do the best they can with the dire circumstances that have been handed to them.
But comments such as the “100,000 infected Ohioans” can cause panic. Part of the problem, I think, is a collision of disciplines. Doctors specialize in diagnosing and treating diseases; they don’t necessarily have an expertise in analyzing complex data sets and crunching numbers.
The experts who have given these dire warnings rely on computer modeling. But even some of them are backtracking from their predictions. And those computer models are only as good as the data used to create them. Good data in, equals good data out; flawed data in, equals flawed data out.
I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t take this threat seriously. It’s a malevolent bug and it has done damage and will do more. One of its nastier elements is that it survives for several days on multiple surfaces – stainless steel, plastic, cardboard. My nephew, who has a PhD in microbiology, offered a great way to think of it. Imagine that everything you touch has wet paint on it that remains wet for days. The box at the grocery store, the plastic bag, the shopping cart. You touch it, you spread the wet paint. That’s why the hand-washing and sanitizing is so important.
And so here we are, quarantined, while our economy takes a huge hit, people lose their jobs and small businesses suffer potentially irreversible damage. Are we doing the right thing? I don’t know. But here’s the key: I’m not sure anyone else does either.
Michael Levitt is a Nobel laureate and a Stanford biophysicist. He was interviewed by the LA Times in late March and said that while epidemiologists are warning of months, or even years, of massive social disruption and millions of deaths, the data simply don’t support such a dire scenario – especially in areas where reasonable social distancing measures are in place.
Levitt says what we really need is to control the panic. But he asserts that social distancing is critical and the ban on large gatherings is necessary because the virus is so new that the population has no immunity to it, and a vaccine is still many months away.
Levitt also blames the media for causing unnecessary panic by focusing on the relentless increase in the cumulative number of cases and spotlighting celebrities who get COVID-19. He points out that by contrast, the flu has sickened many millions of Americans this flu season. The CDC estimates that from October 1, 2019 until March 21, 2020, between 38 and 54 million Americans have contracted the flu, between 400,000 and 780,000 have been hospitalized, and between 24,000 and 64,000 have died.
Let that sink in – on the low end, four times the number of people already died this season in the United States from the flu than from COVID-19 worldwide. And, according to the CDC an average of 34,000 Americans have died every year for the past nine years from the flu. But, as Professor Levitt points out, those deaths don’t get reported. They’re not up on a split screen rising daily like an odometer.
While the fatality rate for this virus appears to be higher than that of the flu, Levitt says it is, quite simply put, “Not the end of the world. The real situation is not nearly as terrible as they make it out to be.”
Those are reassuring words from a knowledgeable source. But we all know there are plenty of dire warnings out there that contradict Dr. Levitt.
Saving lives and preventing the spread of this disease is the correct pursuit, but where do we go from here? A devastated economy does not make for a healthy populace. When people are unemployed, in financial turmoil and under stress, alcohol
abuse, drug abuse, suicide and even domestic violence increase. As President Trump noted not long ago, the cure can’t be worse than the disease.
Maybe our reaction needs to be revised, tempered – a more targeted approach, where we protect our most vulnerable but let others get back to work. Maybe.
Beyond that, what this virus, and our reaction to it, has shown us is that our government has immense power over our lives. More, perhaps, than we realized. That ought to be something we re-examine when this is all over.
In this time when so little is certain, when dreams are crushed as life savings vanish, when the news seems daily to be worse and panic seems but a sound-bite away, I am reminded of Rudyard Kipling’s timeless poem from 1895, “If.”
It goes, in part: “If you can keep your head when all about you/ Are losing theirs and blaming it on you/ If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you/ But make allowance for their doubting too…If you can fill the unforgiving minute/ With sixty seconds of distance run/ Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it.”
These are days unlike any we’ve ever seen. But if we can just keep our heads, we will be fine.