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Europe’s COVID-19 experiences show that mitigation measures can only mitigate, they cannot stop the spread of the virus

At the weekend, the Star Tribune carried a story titled ‘Trump aide: ‘We’re not going to control the pandemic’‘ It read, in part:

The coronavirus has reached the upper echelons of the White House again, with an outbreak among aides to Vice President Mike Pence just over a week from Election Day. A top White House official declared: “We’re not going to control the pandemic.”

White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, pressed to explain why the pandemic cannot be reined in, said, “Because it is a contagious virus just like the flu.” He told CNN’s ”State of the Union” that the government was focused on getting effective therapeutics and vaccines to market.

“We’re not going to control the pandemic. We are going to control the fact that we get vaccines, therapeutics and other mitigation areas,” Meadows said on CNN. He added: “We are making efforts to contain it.”

There was some predictable pearl clutching. Thus, the Minnesota DFL:

What does it mean to ‘contain’ Covid-19? Does it mean a set of policies which halt the spread of the virus? If so, it isn’t clear that such a thing is possible. Last week the Daily Beast carried an article titled ‘Italy Did Everything Right to Stop a Second Wave of the Coronavirus. So What Went Wrong?‘ Its author, Barbie Latza Nadeau, writes:

If you turn on the news in Italy right now, you might be forgiven for thinking you are getting reruns from March. Pictures of COVID-only units, field hospitals being erected, exhausted medics, and coffins are again dominating headlines as Italy comes to grips with a deadly second wave of COVID-19. On Wednesday, the death toll topped 125 in a 24-hour period for the first time since May when this country was still under a draconian lockdown and seen as a harbinger of what was to come.

What’s particularly troubling about the return of COVID in Italy is that the country has done everything experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci have been advising. Face masks in public places have been compulsory for months, social distancing is strongly enforced, nightclubs have never reopened, and sporting arenas are at less than a third of capacity. Children who are back at school are regularly tested and strictly social-distanced, and yet, the second wave seems completely unstoppable.

Furthermore:

Italy’s health ministry released data this week showing that 80.3 percent of the new infections “occur at home” while only 4.2 percent come from recreational activities and schools.

…authorities are very concerned still that despite all the best efforts to contain the spread, it simply cannot be stopped. The government’s experts insist that the rate of contagion among schoolchildren is not the driving factor; but young people who feel confident they won’t get very sick and insist on gathering socially may be. Now major cities like Milan, Rome, and Naples have evening curfews to try to stop young people from gathering socially, which seems to be contributing to the spread. Ricciardi said most of the contagion that happens within multigenerational homes comes from young people bringing it in.

Germany—which largely avoided major problems during the first European wave—has reported shocking numbers of new infections, which topped 10,000 in a single day Wednesday. Authorities there have also blamed young people going out or groups meeting privately for the spread. Lothar Wieler, president of its disease-control center, told the DW network that people going to work is not the problem. “We don’t see so many outbreaks at workplaces or in public transportation, but it’s mostly coming together in privacy, in parties, and also in services and weddings,” he said. “We shouldn’t have too many of these events.”

Minnesota and Covid-19 – Aims and achievements

When this pandemic began, the talk was of ‘flattening the curve’. As Gov. Walz said in March, rightly, it seems, from the Italian and German experiences:

“We’re not going to stop this from spreading, but we can stop how fast it spreads and we can make sure that we protect those most vulnerable.” 

When he issued a stay-at-home order on March 25, he said:

“The objective of everything we’re doing here is, it’s too late to flatten the curve as we talked about, the testing regimen was not in place soon enough for us to be able to do that, or expand it enough. So what our objective is now is to move the infection rate out, slow it down, and buy time so that the resources of the ICU and the hospitals and the things that we’re going to talk about today can be stood up to address that.”

To a large degree, Gov. Walz has failed in the first of these aims, protecting the most vulnerable. As of last Thursday, our state’s Congregate Care homes accounted for 74% of all Covid-19 deaths.

On the second aim, building up capacity to meet the surge, he has had more success. On April 29 he announced:

“I today can comfortably tell you that, when we hit our peak — and it’s still projected to be about a month away — if you need an ICU bed and you need a ventilator, you will get it in Minnesota.”

At that time, peak ICU usage was forecast for 3,397 on June 29, which the state was equipped to handle. In the event, the peak — so far — was nowhere near as bad as the forecast, coming on May 30, with 263 Minnesotans needing ICU treatment. At present, there are 149 Minnesotans needing ICU treatment for Covid-19.

Again, as the Italian and German examples show, Gov. Walz was probably correct in March when he said that the spread of Covid-19 couldn’t be stopped. In that case, ‘containing’ the virus by stopping its spread is impossible. We should set ourselves goals we can actually achieve. These include better protections for the most vulnerable, where the state government has conspicuously failed, and increased ICU capacity, where it succeeded back in April. That is what we ought to mean by ‘containing’ Covid-19.

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

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