My Turn: The wide, wide curve of coronavirus

  • A closed sign hangs in the window of a shop in Portsmouth due to coronavirus on March 25. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 4/11/2020 6:30:04 AM

By now most everyone has heard about “flattening the curve,” that is, trying to spread out the effects of the coronavirus to bring it within the availability of medical resources.

What nobody seems to think about is that the more draconian steps you take to limit it, the wider the curve gets so you have to keep the rules in effect longer. And there is good reason to think that the curve does not have a single peak but is at least bimodal.

The 1918 flu had two phases of several months each, and lingered in parts of the world for over a year. The CDC suggests that the coronavirus will ebb during the summer months but come back in force next fall.

State response to the epidemic has been particularly inept.

Gov. Chris Sununu said grocery stores would stay open but closed state offices, which involve far less public contact. He ordered bars and restaurants to close but workers couldn’t file for unemployment unless they had home internet, and waiting on hold for half an hour is not good if you have a pay-by-the-minute phone.

The education department closed schools but said clubs, libraries and day cares would stay open – how hypocritical can you get? Libertarians will have a field day pointing out that government is closing exactly when you need it most.

Many town meetings were postponed at a time when the number of daily new cases in New Hampshire was in the single digits – that may not happen again at the tail of the curve until next year, which is a little late to approve this year’s budget.

Intercity buses were shut down because one rider had the virus – knowing that public transit is unreliable may doom the proposed train.

Stores are reducing their hours making remaining times more crowded – exactly not what is wanted.

The ACLU wants to let a mass of people out of jail at a time when there are no jobs for them, and suggests police not arrest those who commit new crimes – easy to see why everybody is buying guns.

Gov. Sununu says his stay-at-home edict is in line with neighboring states. It used to be that even Democrats in New Hampshire didn’t brag about being like Massachusetts.

This is the “Live free or die” state that doesn’t require seatbelts and allows concealed carry even though that may impose external costs on others, so one might think that people could decide for themselves whether to patronize golf courses and health clubs with appropriate precautions to lower their heart disease risk. That is if owners chose to stay open, and with enhanced unemployment workers could decide to stay home if they chose.

Not being able to get a haircut for a month may not be serious even if you were overdue, but it will easily be three months or more before cases drop to their current level again, and it will be interesting to see what Gov. Sununu’s hair looks like in July.

His edict that towns can spend whatever money they want sounds like Bernie Sanders while abolishing public hearings so developers can build what they want sounds more like Donald Trump.

Not every resident of New Hampshire has a home internet, some don’t have cable TV, and a few don’t even have phones or have to pay by the minute to use them.

Communities need to provide access to those who are disproportionately minorities by using large facilities like auditoriums or gyms where those choosing to attend in person can space out even if officials choose to attend from home. Or discontinue voting on non-critical items until public meetings are safe, like the state Legislature chose to do.

Probably the worst are the public health officials who seem to feel their goal is to reduce virus deaths not necessarily overall deaths.

For example, we can expect more cancer deaths if colonoscopies are canceled for six months, and more suicides as people are isolated and feel helpless.

Health officials still haven’t developed consistent guidelines for my heroes the grocery clerks, who deal with hordes of people every day. If you seem to have virus symptoms but are not in a high-risk group, you won’t be given a test or treatment but just be ordered to quarantine yourself for 14 days – so why bother?

We can hope for a miracle cure, but after decades and spending hundreds of millions of dollars, the best AIDS vaccine is only about 50% effective. An article in The Atlantic presents four scenarios ranging from a couple of months to a couple of years duration and suggests that people will refuse to be homebound that long and will insist on taking greater risks.

Officials need to concentrate on ways that people can safely do more rather than continually requiring them to do less.

(Roy Schweiker lives in Concord.)


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