Let’s Trust Americans to Be Careful About COVID-19

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Testifying before the Senate as a member of the White House’s coronavirus task force, Dr. Anthony Fauci gave his assessment of the current state of the Country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. He was both hopeful and overly cautious.

Fauci first highlighted advances made in testing for the new coronavirus, as well as the rapid progress of several promising drugs and numerous vaccines in clinical trials. It was an assessment that should give Americans reasons for hope and optimism.

But Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, then cautioned against a hasty abandonment of mitigation measures. He summarized his concerns in response to a question from Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa.:

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My concern is that [with] states or cities or regions, their attempt, understandable, to get back to some form of normality, disregards to a greater degree the checkpoints that we’ve put in our guidelines about when it is safe to proceed and [begin] pulling back on mitigation. I feel if that occurs, there is a real risk you will trigger an outbreak and may not be able to control [it] which […] could even set you back on the road trying to get economic recovery, turn the clock back rather than going forward. That is my major concern, senator.

Everyone should share these concerns.  The job of policymakers now is balancing that concern against the daily hardships of Americans hurt by the harsh mitigation measures.

The early phases of the pandemic response revealed weaknesses in critical equipment supply chains and health systems in Washington state and New York that were at risk of being overwhelmed. But changes in individual behavior and state-mandated mitigation restrictions both slowed down the spread of the virus, enough so that health care capacity wasn’t exceeded–as evidenced by the shutdown of auxiliary field hospitals.

With regards to mitigating the spread of the virus, Americans have done well. Rates of testing for COVID-19  continue to increase while daily cases continue to decrease. Furthermore, efforts made by the American people have spared large parts of the country.

As this map shows, vast expanses of the United States have reported no new cases for at least the past two weeks.

However, could all those untouched places and all those potential infections become new hot spots around the country? This is part of the eventuality that Fauci fears.

It’s possible, but unlikely.

Americans have shown that they can take responsibility for their own health and safety. For instance, data from OpenTable, a restaurant booking app, showed that Americans were making over 50% fewer reservations by mid-March, even before most statewide lockdown orders took effect.

The question, then, is can we trust Americans to make good decisions?  Will many Americans, even with relaxed mitigation rules, continue to avoid public areas, wear masks, socially distance, and maintain other mitigation practices?

And will policymakers enable Americans to assess their own risks against their livelihoods and make the best decisions for them and their families?

With regards to risk, it’s also important to focus on the areas that are hot spots now, or that evidence suggests could become hot spots.

It’s increasingly clear that, although no single group is invulnerable to the virus, nearly all of the risk lies with those older than 65. Fully 80% of mortality due to COVID-19 coming from that cohort.  Special care should be given to protecting them.

Most of the cases in the U.S. are concentrated in several key hot spots, and it’s understandable that Fauci is keeping his eyes on them. But these areas should not dictate a continued lockdown for the rest of the country.

Even in these hot spots, testing has increased while COVID-19 cases either remained level or decreased. In most communities, schools and businesses likely can reopen safely with restraints on large gatherings.

Lifting restrictions won’t mean a sudden flurry of high-risk behaviors, but it will allow those who are confident in their safety to resume at least some part of their livelihoods and help get the economy back on track.

Fauci is not wrong to be cautious. We all must continue to be careful while moving forward. The American people, however, have demonstrated that they will change their behavior and do their part to limit the spread of disease.

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