Editor’s note: This commentary is by Aimee Stephenson, of Burlington. She has a doctorate in Microbiology and Molecular Genetics from the University of Vermont.
The justification for the economic shutdown and stay-at-home order was to “flatten the curve” in the name of ensuring our hospitals were not overrun by a predicted tidal wave of COVID-19 patients. The purpose of social distancing is to spread out cases, preventing hospitals from being overwhelmed, and in turn, avoiding deaths from COVID due to lack of available medical care.
As the reason for the shutdown was to avoid a particular cause of death — lack of hospital capacity — it would follow that the most relevant metric for deciding whether to reopen the economy is hospital capacity. The key question our leaders should be asking is whether we currently have an issue with hospital capacity? The answer to this question is a resounding “no.”
Beginning in early April, the state’s modeling predicted on April 26 Vermont would need, in the worst-case scenario, 2,405 beds for COVID patients. Three weeks later on April 24, the state downgraded this prediction to a worst-case scenario of 200 beds needed. Why? The answer lies in the actual data; the massive surge they were expecting, both in COVID cases and COVID hospitalizations, never occurred. In this same three-week period, the Vermont Department of Health reported patients hospitalized due to COVID fell from 29 to 12 patients.
This scenario demonstrates why it is so dangerous to base sweeping policy decisions on modeling rather than real data. As a scientist, I am pro data-based planning and decision making, but only if true, verifiable data exists. In Vermont and nationally, our leaders have not been making decisions based on data, but rather on models driven by fear and panic. In doing so, they have inflicted huge costs on society, the economy and millions of people’s lives.
I believe our leaders have lost sight of the original intent of the lockdown, which was to flatten the curve and preserve hospital capacity. Instead, a new, misguided reason for keeping the lockdowns in place has emerged — preventing the spread of an airborne pathogen. No matter how long, how stringent, or how austere the lockdown measures are, it is completely irrational and unreasonable to believe we can actually prevent the spread of COVID-19.
What Vermonters and the nation need to come to grips with is the fact we coexist every day with viruses, both known and unknown, and have done so since the beginning of human life on earth. We are no more likely to be able to prevent the spread of an airborne illness such as COVID-19 than we are able to prevent the rising and setting of the sun. Yes, social distancing and lockdowns can slow the spread, but eventually a large proportion of Vermont and the world population will come in contact with COVID-19.
Keeping the lockdowns in place until we have a vaccine is a similarly misguided notion. This approach is unsustainable from an economic and societal perspective. Additionally, lifting the lockdown, as soon as possible, is an important strategic next step in reducing harm from COVID-19 and protecting our most vulnerable.
What is known from real data — not models — is the novel coronavirus does not pose a huge problem for the vast majority of Vermonters. They will either experience no symptoms because their immune system effectively fights the virus off, or they will experience mild symptoms.
Another fact we are learning from real data is only a portion of the population is likely to be severely, adversely impacted by COVID-19. As of April 10, 78% of COVID-related deaths in the United States were in people 65 and older, and nearly all were comorbidities where the presence of another chronic disease contributes to death. This is the population we need to protect and focus our efforts on. The current lockdown is not the best way to protect vulnerable Vermonters.
Long before a vaccine is ever developed, herd immunity will protect us from COVID-19. Herd immunity is the phenomenon whereby the novel coronavirus is no longer able to readily spread once a certain percentage of the population has been exposed. Keeping the lockdowns in place, and in particular school closures, prevents the natural progression of the novel coronavirus through the population and delays the development of herd immunity. Many are terrified of lifting the restrictions, but it appears the virus has already spread more than we previously thought. We are learning from recent antibody studies done in Santa Clara, Los Angeles, and New York City that a much larger portion of the total population has already been exposed to the novel coronavirus.
While there is understandably trepidation around lifting restrictions, Vermont should be focusing its public information campaigns, testing capacity and health care resources on those most vulnerable. Doctors and other health care professionals who test positive for antibodies, indicating they have developed immunity to the virus, are the ones best suited to care for these populations.
Lifting restrictions now is the most responsible action Vermont can take to develop herd immunity as soon as possible. This may also prevent the very real possibility of a second wave of the pandemic. If we delay the development of herd immunity much longer, the virus may go dormant over the warm summer months only to rear up again in the fall. Do our leaders not see that merely delaying the inevitable is to our extreme detriment?
Federal and state governments are obsessed with tracking the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths. While it is important to monitor the spread of the novel coronavirus, these numbers are not relevant to the decision to open the economy. The only relevant metric is hospital capacity. Recent hospital furloughs at Southwestern Vermont Health and Rutland Regional Medical Center suggest an overabundance of healthcare capacity.
Yet Vermonters suffering from life-threatening conditions, such as cancer, are being denied so-called “elective surgeries.” Why are the lives of these patients less important than those who get COVID-19? Why does the state selectively ignore important and real data concerning the staggering unemployment numbers (over 70,000 claims) and lost revenue to Vermont (estimated at over $170 million)? These numbers aren’t based on “models,” but reflect real consequences for every Vermonter, not just a portion of the state’s residents.
It is time, now, to abandon misleading and detrimental models and act on what we know with certainty. We need to immediately open Vermont’s economy with a full and generous turn of the spigot. With the spigot open, Vermonters are not likely to suddenly abandon common sense in using hygienic practices such as social distancing, wearing masks, washing hands and staying home when sick. Many Vermonters have suffered such panic and anxiety they are not likely to gratuitously come out of hiding any time soon.
But for the vast majority of Vermonters who have suffered greatly under the lockdown, there is no other conscionable decision but to immediately reopen the economy and liberate Vermont from restrictions that are also counterproductive to protecting our most vulnerable from COVID-19. We desperately need our politicians and leaders to make rational decisions based on real data to lead Vermont out of this crisis.