More bad ideas for Covid-19 benchmarks

Minnesota has been under the personal rule of Gov. Walz since March 14th – 28 weeks. Recently, Gov. Walz set out what benchmarks need to be hit for him to give up these powers. Last week, I wrote about why both of them – the ‘positivity rate‘ and the ratio of ‘community spread‘ cases – are not, in fact, very useful benchmarks. So, what benchmarks should we be using?

What not to do

First, I want to offer some ideas of what not to do. In MinnPost recently, Tim Marx, president and chief executive officer of Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, and Mark Voxland, past mayor and council member of the City of Moorhead and owner of Voxland Electric, offered no fewer than five criteria for ending the emergency. Sadly, they were all bogus.

First, an effective vaccine is available and affordable and enough Minnesotans are being inoculated to protect the health of the entire state.

We have never made a successful vaccine for a coronavirus. While, like almost everyone else, I hope a vaccine for Covid-19 becomes available, that fact must lead us to consider the possibility (or probability) that it won’t. In that case, Marx and Voxland are arguing for a permanent state of emergency and an end to parliamentary government. Doubtless they would say this is not what they want: if that is so, they have to discuss the possibility of ending the emergency without a vaccine and this criteria stops being a criteria.

Second, testing with rapid and accurate results is available and contact tracing — the ability to quickly reach those who may have been in the proximity of an infected person — is implemented. 

As I wrote back in May:

This is what South Korea did with such success, without locking down. But that doesn’t mean that simply copying that strategy will do much good here.

South Korea, with the experience of SARS under its belt, got onto testing and tracing almost immediately. If you get on this when there are few infections it is quite possible that you can identify a share of them, trace their contacts, isolate everybody who tests positive, and halt the spread of the infection. You don’t ‘flatten the curve’, you chop its tail off.

But state officials suggest that something like 513,600 Minnesotans have been or are infected with Covid-19. Even if it is half that, 256,800, can we identify all of them? If we do, can we trace all their contacts? If we can, can we quarantine them all? To ask the question is to answer it. Quite simply, if the state officials are right about a case-to-infections ratio of 1%, Gov. Walz is not going to be able to test, trace, and isolate.

Research in July by the CDC supported an estimate of total infections in Minnesota of around half a million so this criteria, too, is a non-starter.

Third, the state shows a consistent downward trend in the infection and hospitalization rates over a period of time epidemiologists determine is meaningful.

As noted above, I wrote last week about why the ‘positivity rate’ is a poor metric to use. Simply put, as long as testing is not truly ‘random’ the positivity rate is an unreliable benchmark. It might be telling you about who you’re testing, not about the general prevalence of the disease.

Hospitalization rates are a more promising metric for reasons I’ll discuss tomorrow. But this has been made more difficult by the Minnesota’s Department of Health’s decision, last week, to stop reporting the number of people in hospital with Covid-19. This is a bad idea and the state should reverse course.

Fourth, the state’s economy improves, putting people back to work and earning paychecks sufficient to pay rents, mortgages and put food on the table.

This is an economic, not a medical or clinical benchmark. By this logic, the governor should assume emergency powers during any economic downturn. Again, Marx and Voxland seem ambivalent about parliamentary government.

More specifically, the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta is currently forecasting GDP growth for the third quarter of 2020 of a staggering 32.0% suggesting that the economy is coming back strongly. Elevated unemployment will persist for some time, but it is far from clear how Gov. Walz clinging on to his emergency powers will do anything to help that.

Fifth, the most vulnerable, including the elderly, those with chronic health conditions and those dealing with other challenges like homelessness, are protected from the pandemic. 

The state government has failed miserably on this score so far. As I wrote recently, we have had more Covid-19 deaths in our care homes than 25 states have had in total. That happened while Gov. Walz had his emergency powers. What is he going to start doing with them to remedy this if he keeps them that he hasn’t been doing with them so far?

I thank Marx and Voxland for collecting these bad ideas in one place. Tomorrow I’ll move from benchmarks we shouldn’t use to ones we should.

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