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Sen. Carolyn Laine is Wrong: Minnesota Cannot Stay on Lockdown for 18 Months

The consensus to start reopening the economy

In a recent press conference, Gov. Walz said: “I’ve said from the very beginning of this, sheltering in place til a vaccine comes is…is not sustainable.” He is right.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics there were 95,278 people unemployed in Minnesota in March and an unemployment rate of 3.1%. Since the Governor issued his shut down order on March 16th to combat the Coronavirus, 534,929 Minnesotans have filed for unemployment insurance. If we assume that these folks have switched straight from the ‘employed’ to the ‘unemployed’ column, that implies a current unemployment rate of 20.5 percent.

For context, since the data began in January 1976, the previous peak was 8.9 percent between November 1982 and January 1983 – 11.6 percentage points below that current implied rate. The number of people working in Minnesota is now back at a level last seen in February 1996.

Tens of thousands of Minnesotans – at least – are being economically crushed by this shutdown. This cannot continue indefinitely, or even for very long.

So far we have followed Scenario 4 in the model built by the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and Department of Health. This drove the decision to extend the stay-at-home order to May 4th. Scenario 3 – which gives the same outcomes as Scenario 4 in terms of mortality and peak ICU bed useage – would extend the SHOs for those especially vulnerable to Covid-19, such as older adults and people of any age who have serious underlying medical conditions, but would allow other Minnesotans to get back to work observing CDC safe practices. It would allow for a substantial reopening of the state’s economy while protecting the most at risk.

This is where we ought to be headed and Gov. Walz agrees. At the same press conference he said: “We do believe that Scenario 3 is the place we need to go”.

Others think we should lockdown until there is a vaccine

Not everybody agrees. In a lengthy response to a constituent, Sen. Carolyn Laine, DFL-Columbia Heights, wrote:

A vaccine is our hope. Once we have a vaccine, the virus will not be able to jump to continuous fertile territory, and it will ebb out. A safe and reliable vaccine will take 12-18 months, but it WILL come.

Sadly, typing something in caps does not make it come true. The fact is that there has never been a vaccine for a member of the coronavirus family. New York magazine carried a story recently titled ‘We Might Never Get a Good Coronavirus Vaccine‘ which explained:

That may seem counterintuitive. So many brutal viral diseases have been conquered by vaccination — smallpox, polio, mumps — that the technique seems all but infallible. But not all viral diseases are equally amenable to vaccination. “Some viruses are very easy to make a vaccine for, and some are very complicated,” says Adolfo García-Sastre, director of the Global Health and Emerging Pathogens Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “It depends on the specific characteristics of how the virus infects.”

Unfortunately, it seems that COVID-19 is on the difficult end of the scale.

A closely related virus of the same family, SARS, circulated in Asia from late 2002 to mid-2003 and killed more than 700 people. “They really are very similar viruses, both virulent and contagious,” says Rachel Roper, a professor of immunology at East Carolina University who took part in efforts to develop a SARS vaccine.

Given the similarities of the diseases, their response to vaccination would likely be close to identical. So it’s troubling that when researchers conducted animal testing on prospective SARS vaccines, they ran into difficulty. The two versions that they tested both successfully triggered the host animal’s immune system to produce antibodies, but neither was very effective at protecting against the illness. “People think, ‘Oh, if you make antibodies to it, it’s going to be protective,’” says Roper. “That’s not necessarily true. We were able to induce an immune response, but it wasn’t good enough to really protect against the disease.”

It’s possible, Roper fears, that COVID-19 could be a virus that proves resistant to vaccination. “This may be one,” she says. “If we have one, this is going to be it, I think.” The FDA has never approved a vaccine for humans that is effective against any member of the coronavirus family, which includes SARS, MERS, and several that cause the common cold.

Have these researchers tried typing in caps yet? Even if we do get a vaccine, we simply cannot continue to sustain the level of economic damage we have been for 12 to 18 months – and it may well be longer than that, if at all. Frankly, the notion that we should stay on lockdown until a vaccine comes is sheer lunacy.

The purpose of the lockdown was to ‘flatten the curve’, which means pushing down the peak of new infections to such a level that the state’s health system was not overwhelmed. Sen. Laine’s views are a clear break with those of the Governor. Hers is a fringe view and for that we must be very grateful indeed.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment. 

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