What does new research suggest for Minnesota’s Covid-19 policy?

We are often told to listen to ‘the science’ when it comes to Covid-19. Of course, Covid-19 is a new disease, we are finding new things out about it all the time, so what ‘the science’ is saying to us is changing all the time, as it should. Science is not a settled, unchallengeable body of knowledge – that is dogma. Rather, it is a method of inquiry driven by skepticism. As the great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov said:

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka” but “That’s funny…” 

So what is the latest Covid-19 science saying to us?

Covid-19 has been in the United States longer than we thought

NPR News reported recently:

The coronavirus was present in the U.S. weeks earlier than scientists and public health officials previously thought, and before cases in China were publicly identified, according to a new government study published Monday.

The virus and the illness that it causes, COVID-19, were first identified in Wuhan, China, in December 2019, but it wasn’t until about Jan. 20 that the first confirmed COVID-19 case, from a traveler returning from China, was found in the U.S.

However, new findings published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases suggest that the coronavirus, known officially as SARS-CoV-2, had infected people in the U.S. even earlier.

“SARS-CoV-2 infections may have been present in the U.S. in December 2019, earlier than previously recognized,” the authors said.

This discovery adds to evidence that the virus was quietly spreading around the world before health officials and the public were aware, disrupting previous thinking of how the illness first emerged and how it has since evolved. It also shows the virus’s presence in U.S. communities likely didn’t start with the first case identified case in January.

This suggests that the history of the virus is still something of a mystery. It also excuses governments – to some extent – for supposedly inadequate responses which have lead to bad outcomes: by the time governments became aware of Covid-19, the situation was already worse than they knew.

Covid-19 has infected many more people than we think

These finds might help explain the conclusions of another recent paper. MPR News reported recently:

The actual number of coronavirus infections in the U.S. reached nearly 53 million at the end of September and could be approaching 100 million now, according to a model developed by government researchers.

The model, created by scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, calculated that the true number of infections is about eight times the reported number, which includes only the cases confirmed by a laboratory test.

Preliminary estimates using the model found that by the end of September, 52.9 million people had been infected, while the number of laboratory-confirmed infections was just 6.9 million, the team reported in the Nov. 25 issue of the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.

What does this mean for policy?

So, with these findings in mind, how should Minnesota’s Covid-19 policy proceed?

Quite obviously, any notion that ‘test, trace, and isolate’ is going to make much of a difference is a fantasy. According to the Department of Health, at present, Minnesota has diagnosed 378,823 cases of Covid-19. If this new study’s 8 to 1 ratio of total infections to diagnosed cases is correct, then 3,030,584 Minnesotans have been infected with Covid-19, or 54% of the population (it also means, incidentally, that the Infection Fatality Rate is 0.15% 4,444 deaths / 3,030,584 infections). This explains why Minnesota’s Covid-19 tracing regime is being overwhelmed. Having testers and tracers racing around the state chasing all these people isn’t going to achieve much.

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