Ease lockdown, count on common sense
WASHINGTON — The COVID-19 lockdown has served its purpose. The time has come to end it.
The objective of the lockdown was never to stop every American from getting COVID-19, which is impossible; it was to buy time to learn about the virus and prevent our health care system from being overwhelmed. We have accomplished those goals. The Trump administration is on track to procure nearly 200,000 ventilators by the end of the year, and New York has so many it is sending them to other states. The Army Corps of Engineers spent $660 million to build emergency field hospitals across the country, but NPR reports that “most of these facilities haven’t treated a single patient.” The Washington Post reports that in at least a dozen states there are now more coronavirus tests than there are people to take them, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D-N.Y., recently said, “we have more sites and more testing capacity than we’re using.”
Those achievements have come at an enormous price. In the past two months, almost 40 million Americans have lost their jobs – about a quarter of our working population. One recent study suggested that 42% of those layoffs may be permanent.
The costs are not just in lost jobs, but in lost lives. Americans have been forced to put off care for non-COVID-19 illnesses such as cancer and cardiac disease — forgoing screenings, surgeries, chemotherapy and emergency room visits. Zoran Lasic, a cardiologist at the Jamaica Hospital Medical Center and Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, told the New England Journal of Medicine that when we look back “the toll on non-COVID patients will be much greater than COVID deaths.” While the government is speeding clinical trials for COVID-19 treatments and vaccines, trials for many non-COVID diseases have ground to a halt. David Ryan, chief of oncology at Massachusetts General Hospital, told the NEJM that “clinical research in cancer will be set back by at least a year as we all drop what we’re doing to take care of the surge of [COVID] patients.” According to a model from the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, we could see an additional 40,000 deaths due to suicides and drug overdoses among the jobless, as well as an additional 2 million people addicted to drugs.
When the pandemic first arrived, we did not have data to show which populations were most vulnerable. Now we know the vast majority of COVID victims are older Americans, like my mother, with underlying health conditions. We must continue to shelter and protect them. But for everyone else, especially young people, the risks of resuming activity are much lower.
Usually children are most vulnerable in a pandemic, which is why we shut down schools. That was the right decision when the novel coronavirus emerged. But we now we know that COVID has largely spared children. New York City, the epicenter of the epidemic, reports just 13 confirmed or suspected COVID-19 deaths among those 17 and under – and almost all of those victims had an underlying illness. (There have been another five suspected or confirmed deaths in New York among children with a rare COVID-19-linked inflammatory syndrome.)
Parents uncomfortable sending their kids to school should be given the option of distance learning. But the vast majority of students should be allowed back in the classroom with appropriate social distancing precautions. According to Dimitri Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Hospital and editor of JAMA Pediatrics, children will suffer a 9- to-12-month learning loss because of the lockdown. That will only worsen if it continues in the fall. Yet Michael Chertoff, chairman of ReOpen DC Advisory Group, has recommended that Washington, D.C., schools not fully reopen for in-person learning until there is a vaccine. That’s completely senseless.
Even if we see a spike in cases when the lockdown ends, we now have the capacity to handle it. With adequate testing in place, we should have good data on where COVID-19 is spreading in the fall, and the ability to employ local rather than national mitigation measures to ring-fence any hot spots. We should all do our part – washing our hands, wearing masks indoors, practicing social distancing and protecting the vulnerable. But it’s time to stop asking millions of Americans to sacrifice their livelihoods. It is time to restart treatments and clinical trials for non-COVID-19 patients. And it’s time for kids to go back to school.