The Corner

Health Care

What a Hospital Director Thinks about the ‘Second Wave’

In two recent editions of the Morning Jolt, I’ve been able to share the perspective of a reader who is the head of research for a top-ten hospital in this country, getting a sense of where the country stands as the fight against the coronavirus continues. This director has been briefing high-level decision makers since the coronavirus epidemic began. He prefers not to be quoted by name, lest his blunt assessments cause headaches for his institution. His latest analysis:

I use the hospital cases from [my northeast state] as a fairly spin-proof proxy for the seriousness of the pandemic. There was a small but real break in the decline of cases in urban and suburban areas about a week ago, matching up with what one would expect if there was spread of infections due to the protests and riots the past two weeks [obligatory reminder—correlation is not causation!]. I stress that the impact was small, and the declining trend in the metro areas (which were hit hard in April) has resumed, which everyone ought to see as good news. Rural areas continue to have a pretty flat curve.

What does that mean? In my informed but humble opinion — I’m a scientist who does science, and unlike the folks who play scientists on TV, I know where my area of expertise ends and other people’s starts — it should serve as a reminder that we’re not out of the woods yet. That said, it makes me less worried about the much talked-about second wave. Between the restlessness of people who had been shut out of their normal life, or worse yet losing jobs or businesses; the increased activity over the Memorial Day weekend, and the protests, the lockdowns took a very big hit the past three weeks, but the calamity that the TV talking heads were predicting didn’t come to pass.  Can’t say I feel bad for them.

There was a real impact though, which says that we really do need to take the threat seriously. The people who say that the protests prove that COVID-19 is no worse than the flu are wrong. If I were advising the governor, I’d be recommending a one-week pause in the red-orange-yellow-green progression: partly to make sure the downward trend in infections is solid, and partly to impress upon the public that it’s up to them to continue the practices of social distancing, isolating themselves if they feel sick, and washing hands and frequently-touched surfaces as businesses reopen. If people take their responsibility seriously, we’ll have more leeway. If they slack off and things get worse, restrictions have to be dialed up again. That might be something that both red-state and blue-state governors can agree on (though Kristi Noem and Ron DeSantis were there before their northeastern counterparts).

As Derek Thompson observed earlier this morning, cases per capita have remained level over the past month, the rate of positive tests is down somewhat, but the per capita deaths are down by more than 50 percent. We may not be stopping the virus from spreading through our partially-reopened society, but it appears we’re doing a better job of keeping the virus away from those who are most likely to succumb to it.

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