As April turns to May, there’s a hint of optimism — or maybe delirium — in the air about the coronavirus pandemic.
An antiviral drug showed promise in a clinical trial as a COVID-19 treatment. President Donald Trump opted to not extend federal social distancing guidelines that ended Thursday. And states have been rolling out plans to reopen certain businesses.
Even the stock market has been on a run. As of Thursday, the S&P 500 was down less than 10% for the past year, even though more than 30 million people have filed unemployment claims in the past six weeks. Jared Kushner, the president's adviser and son-in-law, predicted the economy will be "rocking" by July.
Testing for COVID-19
It would be terrific if this nation really were turning the corner. But a push for rapid reopening is premature.
As of Thursday, only Rhode Island and West Virginia had satisfactory levels of testing. And it does not appear as if any state had seen the trend that a federal task force said is vital — a decline in new cases lasting at least two weeks — though some have claimed to.
The figures vary greatly from state to state. And some of the persistently high numbers might be the result of increased testing, which finds cases that previously went unreported.
Even so, there’s not much in the trends to warrant dramatic relaxation in the near term. Too hasty a reaction could trigger a second wave of infections that worsens the overall health toll and extends the economic impact of the pandemic.
There have already been some second waves overseas. Hokkaido, the big northern island of Japan, was one of the first places in the world to take action and by late March was declaring victory. It has had to reverse course and reimpose some of its social distancing policies. Germany, hailed as one of the planet’s biggest successes, is reevaluating its situation after an uptick in new cases.
Still blind on death rates, immunity
Several states, most of which are Republican in orientation, have already begun some openings of stores, small businesses and public facilities. Most of these states were simply fortunate in avoiding the worst of the first wave. At least one — Minnesota — has seen a substantial uptick in cases even as some nonessential businesses have been allowed to reopen.
Most other states have plans in place that range from an imminent reopening of the economy to sets of standards and thresholds that will guide upcoming relaxations in policy. But the simple fact is that the states and the federal government are still flying blind in a number of important respects:
►They don’t know how many people have been infected but don’t show up in the data. Without that, they don’t have a firm grasp on the mortality rate of COVID-19.
►They don’t know to what degree, if at all, people who’ve had COVID-19 are immune from it in the future. And if they are immune, how long they remain that way.
►They are still well behind other developed nations in their ability to do widespread testing to identify sick people, isolate them and figure out who've they been in contact with.
With a vaccine or cure many months away, at best, we are seeing a keen desire to pick out the positive data points and weave them into a narrative that justifies opening businesses, buying stocks and generally being upbeat about where things will be later this year and next.
Now is not the time for irrational exuberance. Now is not the time to declare victory. Now is the time to proceed with caution, with our eyes wide open to the difficult trade-offs and risks that lurk ahead.
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