March 16, 2020

The Social Distancing and COVID-19 Quarantine Quagmire

Quarantines and social distancing measures will NOT “contain” the CV19 virus.

I have spent more time on conference calls in the last week than in any week since the 9/11 Islamist attack on our nation. Most of those conversations have been on the grim side of the balance sheet. But let me reiterate, what causes me most heartburn right now is the impact the “viral fear pandemic” and the economic realities of trying to mitigate the actual threat is having on working men and women and their families.

That being said, there has been a lot of social-media misinformation about a “Stafford Act” presidential declaration of a “national quarantine” for most “nonessential” workers nationwide. Allow me to dispel that rumor, and to clarify the purpose of the current quarantines and “social distancing” measures — the motives of which are to prevent overwhelming our medical-response capabilities.

On Friday, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency as authorized by the Stafford Act, an important measure supporting the government and private-sector response to the COVID-19 epidemic in the U.S. This was a major step to reducing government regulatory and bureaucratic barriers to response and recovery, and combined with the legislative recovery funding bills, it provides significant economic assurances for state and local governments and businesses nationwide. That was an important measure, and while there are no “good options” for dealing with this epidemic, some options are better than others, and this administration is very capable at discerning the difference and implementing those options.

But the most pressing question as we suddenly shutter sectors of our economy is, will the “Great Distancing” result in another Great Recession as in 2008, or much worse, in the scale of a Great Depression?

For context, as I have written previously, the notion of containing the CV19 epidemic is absurd. It was nationwide by February. And, to be clear, infectious-disease deaths associated with CV19 could far exceed the 2017-18 flu season, when the CDC estimated the U.S. flu death toll was 80,000.

About that “presidential quarantine”? There is NO proposed presidential declaration of a national quarantine, much less any Stafford Act or constitutional authority for such. Quarantines have obviously and necessarily been in the range of discussions for the last three weeks — and have been part of the pandemic table-top planning exercises for three decades. Because of misinformation circulated on social media – most likely disseminated by Chinese or Russian directorates of disinformation, in recent days some people have declared they have a “friend of a friend” who has a direct line to the White House or Pentagon. Nonsense.

The National Security Council released a statement refuting the misinformation yesterday: “There is no national lockdown. The CDC has and will continue to post the latest guidance on #COVID19 #coronavirus.”

For the record, such a “national quarantine” would be exponentially more economically devastating than the current state- and local-mandated measures, and the Trump national-security team is, appropriately, leaving decisions about what to shutter and where, to state and local governments. The administration is rightly concerned that any centralized “one size fits all” approach would not be effective.

To that end, five states took additional measures over the weekend to close restaurants and bars — and that is how these decisions should be made. But it should be noted that state quarantine declarations could significantly impede commutes between states.

Accelerating the “national quarantine” rumor was a revised CDC guidance with more restrictive recommendations for group gatherings. But what most set off the misinformation bomb were remarks by the highly respected director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who also serves as the administration’s spokesman for the epidemic response.

According to Dr. Fauci: “I think Americans should be prepared that they are going to have to hunker down significantly more than we as a country are doing. We feel that with rather stringent mitigation and containment, without necessarily complete lockdown, we would be able to prevent ourselves from getting to where, unfortunately, Italy is now. … With regard to domestic travel bans, we always talk about it, consider everything. But I can tell you that has not been seriously considered, doing travel bans in the country. … I don’t see that right now or in the immediate future. Everybody has got to get involved in distancing themselves socially. … Everything is on the table. Right now, myself personally, I wouldn’t go to a restaurant. I just wouldn’t because I don’t want to be in a crowded place.”

Dr. Fauci had earlier said, “I would like to see a dramatic diminution of personal interaction. … Whatever it takes to do that, that’s what I would like to see. … The virus is not a mathematical formula. There are going to be people who are young who are going to wind up getting seriously ill. So, protect yourself.”

He noted, “For most people, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. … The vast majority of people recover. People with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three weeks to six weeks to recover.”

Regarding the notion that the recommendations are overkill or overreacting, he added, “If you think you’re in line with the outbreak, you’re already three weeks behind. So you’ve got to be almost overreacting a bit to keep up with it. … People need to understand that things will get worse before they get better. … What we’re trying to do is to make sure they don’t get to the worst-case scenario.”

Fauci, the highest paid of all government bureaucrats at almost $420,000 per year, is an academician and government-agency head — which is to say his views, while are not tempered by other realities outside the Beltway, like the economic implications for American workers and their families.

As I noted last week in “Is the COVID-19 Cure Killing Us?,” while all the extraordinary measure taken to shut down the nation under the auspices of “social distancingwill help mitigate the rate of spread, it will not contain the virus. As I repeatedly noted further, indeed, the mandates to quarantine the healthiest among us rather than the most vulnerable, will also substantially slow the development of natural immunities in order to progress toward herd immunity, which, as our medical advisors note, will greatly prolong the viral impact.

Recall what Death Czar Tony Fauci had to say about vaccines versus natural immunity, back when he could tell fact from politically-induced fiction: “The best vaccination is to get infected yourself. … The most potent vaccination is getting infected yourself.”

Quarantine quagmire indeed…

To better understand the motives behind “self-quarantines” and “social distancing,” these measures serve primarily two objectives.

First, it is assumed that about half of Americans will contract the coronavirus variant causing COVID-19 illness, and a fraction of those will require significant medical attention. The “R” value infectious rate of the this contagion is substantially higher than the more virulent influenza. The infection rate of this contagion is estimated to be 2.5 – each infected person passes the infection to 2.5 people versus the 1.3 infectious rate of typical seasonal influenzas. The exponential rate of infection between the former and latter R values, is vastly different.

Thus, the objective of increasing individual isolation here is to “flatten the infection curve” in order to retard the exponential rate of spread — how fast we get it — and thus not reduce the infections but spread the demand on our ability to provide medical attention over a longer period of time.

To be clear, the isolation quarantine measures being taken by citizens at higher risk — those over age 60 and those with medical conditions that make recovery more difficult — will greatly reduce the infection rate. But again, the coronavirus variant causing COVID-19 illness will remain in circulation nationwide for a long time, especially if it is not slowed by warmer weather as is often the case with seasonal flu epidemics. Wide distribution of effective vaccines is still at least 8-10 months out, if not longer.

The second motive behind increasing individual isolation is equally important. Retarding the rate of infectious spread allows more time to develop and ramp up medical-treatment protocols.

And third, in the event that seasonal warming lowers the infection rates of this viral contagion as it does with most influenza outbreaks, this also buys time until warmer seasonal temperatures arrive. This may account for why there are, currently, more pandemic hotspots north of the equator.

The key question about “hunkering down” is, for how long? Are we going to flatten the infectious-spread curve so long that we flatline the economy?

That being said, historically, there is a good case study for social distancing, though it was not called that at the time. Regarding the aforementioned 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, the infection and death rates in two cities is demonstrative of the effectiveness of social distancing.

As soldiers were preparing to depart for WWI, the city of Philadelphia determined that it would not cancel its public events and parades, and delayed taking other measure to limit the viral spread. Meanwhile the city of St. Louis decided it would cancel its public events and parades. And after detecting its first cases, St. Louis city officials closed schools, public buildings and churches, and banned gatherings more than 20 people. They also ordered staggered work shifts and limited use of public transportation.

The outcome: St. Louis had half the per capita death rate of Philadelphia.

Here is what I can tell you for sure. Donald Trump has more business experience than any president in a century. As I noted above, while there are no “good options” for dealing with this epidemic, some options are better than others, and this president and his administration understand that as well as any president in my lifetime.

Moving forward, as Trump declared last week, “Everybody has to be vigilant and has to be careful. But be calm.” I would add for those who are in judicious contact with others, maintain an infectious and confident smile, and pass it along!

Footnote: In the worst of circumstances, production and distribution can cause supply-line interruptions of essential goods and impeded restocking. It can also result in the interruption of essential services, especially medical services. If factory workers who produce goods, truckers who deliver products, or inventory managers in retail facilities who stock them are afraid to come to work, the supply line can be disrupted. If medical and other safety providers are overloaded because of material shortages or personnel availability, that can lead to service interruptions. The combination of supply line and service interruptions can result in panic and chaos, which can lead to civil unrest. Note that Civil unrest in urban centers can occur rapidly.

(Visit our comprehensive China Virus Pandemic response and recovery page, and see our related pages.

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