In the past week we have seen the stock market and financial markets around the world tank due to uncertainty over the severity of coronavirus. We have seen drastically downwardly revised economic forecasts. I saw one article on the fate of the airline industry—I flew on half-full planes on Friday, in a fairly empty airport, as the result of the fear and anxiety.
I have read the calculations and it’s not great in terms of public safety. The current known death rate is about 3.4 percent, but that number is almost assuredly way too high. That’s because there is likely a large volume of cases too mild to be identified.
I have read fairly robust analyses that put the true death rate closer to 1 percent. That’s still about 10 times higher than the flu. These analysts warn that there is a push-pull effect here. The unknown cases will push the death rate downward, but the current cases that will end with death will push it upward.
I have read as well a lot of well-intentioned people and public health officials with a list of do’s and don’ts. I agree with people taking precautions. But there is a fine line between caution and paranoia, and that’s what has me worried.
No one is doing the other calculation—how many people could die if the economy tanks? The vulnerable people living on the streets or on the edge of starvation around the world who could be pushed over by a major recession or depression. The impact on people’s lives by shutting down schools.
I start worrying when I read that Stanford University is cancelling in-call coursework for the rest of the quarter and that Elk Grove, one of the largest school districts around, is closing all schools and cancelling student-related activities through March 13 due to the coronavirus.
What happens on March 13? Is the expectation that this will be short-term? That we can briefly ride this out? One of the dangers of coronavirus is prolonged incubation and contagion. Thirty days is how long they recommend quarantine.
Reading Marcos Breton’s column makes one wonder what the officials at Elk Grove were even thinking.
As he reports, county officials were caught flat-footed by the announcement.
He writes: “If county health officials were communicating with the Elk Grove district all along then that message didn’t get out to county elected officials.”
He notes that County Supervisor Phil Serna was at a campaign event in the Arden Arcade area on Saturday when he learned of the announcement. Senator Richard Pan has spent weeks attempting to calm fears about the coronavirus. As has Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg and Assemblymember Kevin McCarty.
According to Marcos Breton, “All of them learned at the same time and without warning.”
Mayor Steinberg seems to have the right tone: “We are all rightfully vigilant about what we don’t know about the spread of the virus.
“But I am very concerned about the big picture that we don’t cause a panic,” he continued. “We must organize a community discussion with the goal of developing standards and protocols for when we must shut down public events and public spaces. … Let us have a rational and balanced policy with the guidance and leadership of our public health officials that will help determine these kinds of decisions going forward.”
That has been my concern here—a lot of panic and not enough cautious planning.
The response has to be commensurate with the threat. It is instructive to compare this perhaps to Ebola, which has had some serious outbreaks mostly in Africa. On the one hand, coronavirus is more easily spread, as it can spread through the air. But Ebola has about a 50 percent fatality rate according to the World Health Organization, while coronavirus seems to be about one percent.
However, Ebola is spread at this point only through direct contact, which has made it much easier to contain.
I say this not to minimize the danger of coronavirus but rather to put things into context. The elderly and those with compromised immune systems seem to be most vulnerable to fatality, with most people getting mild flu-like infections at most.
That again leads me to wonder—should we be shutting down society and our economy over a one-percent fatality rate?
In addition, shutting down a school flies in the face, perhaps, of science. Wired two days ago reported: “In a recent analysis by a team of researchers at Johns Hopkins and in China of more than 72,000 confirmed cases from China, children under the age of 10 accounted for less than 1 percent of all infections. Of the 1,023 deaths recorded in China at the time, not a single child was among them.”
“We see relatively few cases among children,” World Health Organization director general Tedros Adhanom Gheberyesus told reporters in mid-February. “More research is needed to understand why.”
As Wired reports, “a detailed new study helps to explain what’s been going on. It turns out, it’s not that kids are somehow immune to SARS-CoV-2. They’re just not getting very sick.”
That brings us back to Marcos Breton and Elk Grove: “How could the largest school district in Northern California announce it was shutting its doors in a complete vacuum of information and leadership?”
“I can’t say it’s the best decision,” EGUSD Superintendent Chris Hoffman said Saturday.
The California Department of Health released its guidelines for schools, colleges and large public events to protect against the spread of COVID-19 on Saturday.
As Mr. Breton points out: “Nowhere in those recommendations do state officials call for the closure of a district without a single student or staff member testing positive for COVID-19.”
What I worry about is that Stanford and Elk Grove are the tip of the iceberg—an iceberg for which we cannot possibly conceive the bottom of at this time.
“My greatest concern about the current state of affairs is that it will breed unwarranted fear and panic,” Supervisor Serna said.
I fully support caution. But we need to temper that caution with sound reasoning.
—David M. Greenwald reporting