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We need more clarity before next pandemic

I believe the science telling us face masks and social distancing help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and that government-mandated shutdowns — though I don’t agree with every aspect of them — probably saved lives.

I also believe the science that tells us depression and anxiety caused by economic hardship and social isolation can cause its own health problems, and hope gives us the best chance to save those lives.

Our government has not done well at providing that hope.

More than a year ago, when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered the first shutdown, not knowing how it might end agonized me most. Did we have to get down to zero cases before we could reopen? Zero deaths? A target testing rate? A certain hospital capacity?

What was the number?

No one said then and still hasn’t a year later, leaving me and other Michiganders with the impression — whether it’s accurate or not — that our economic livelihood is tied to nothing more than Whitmer’s whims.

I believe Whitmer watches data and listens to health advisers when making her decisions, but she’s offered little consistency. When she ended her first shutdown on June 1, Michigan averaged 379 new cases a day and 39 new deaths a day, while 3% of COVID-19 tests came back positive, according to data analysis by the Detroit Free Press. When we softly reopened from her second shutdown on Feb. 1, the stats showed 1,461 new cases and 40 new deaths a day and about 6% of tests positive — better than when she shut us down in November, but still far worse than when we reopened in June.

Why were those numbers OK in February but not early on?

I reached out repeatedly to the governor’s office for an interview and heard nothing back.

State Sen. Jim Stamas, R-Midland, who chairs the state Senate Appropriations Committee and represents Northeast Michigan, did take my call, and said Whitmer must “share the data so we can help understand where the dollars are going and be supportive of these things. We’ve been asking for months — half a year, if not more — ‘What are you basing your decisions on?’ The only answer get is, ‘It’s science.'”

Stamas and other lawmakers have endorsed a proposal from the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association that would link restrictions directly to predetermined benchmarks. More than 15% of tests come back positive for two weeks? Restaurants close. Less than 3% for two weeks? No restrictions.

The association’s proposal “was a great starting point,” Stamas said. “I think there are other factors that certainly can be considered, and it would be awesome if we could have a discussion (with the governor) of what those other factors are.”

I know we can’t negotiate with a virus that cares nothing for bipartisanship, bicameral agreement, or resolutions passed by township boards. I know emergency situations require flexibility and nimbleness.

And I don’t know if the restaurateurs’ and hoteliers’ proposal is the right one, but I like the idea of knowing ahead of time when the economic hardship might end.

Humans can endure all kinds of things if they see light at the end of the tunnel, and they’re more willing to put in the work — such as masking up and staying home — if they know how much work they must do to reap the benefits.

Plenty of scientists say it’s not whether we’ll face another pandemic in the future. It’s when.

And, for various reasons, it could be less than another century before the next one hits (see this story from NPR on the subject: https://tinyurl.com/2u29x6xb).

“God forbid that we have another one,” Stamas told me, “(but) I certainly hope that we’re going to improve on the lessons that we have … so that we get the governor and the Legislature working together, using good data, sound science, and making the decisions based on that.”

For what it’s worth, The Atlantic interviewed several epidemiologists about when we might consider the pandemic “over.” The consensus answer says we return to normal when COVID-19 infects and kills at a rate low enough it’s no longer worth damaging the economy to prevent it, like the flu (read the Atlantic’s full story here: https://tinyurl.com/3pypwsf2).

In 2019, the flu killed 1,662 Michiganders, or about five people a day, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

COVID-19 currently kills about 16 Michiganders a day.

We might bring the COVID-19 death rate low enough by vaccinating 70% of Michiganders 16 or older, health officials say.

As of this writing, we’ve fully vaccinated 16%.

Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-354-3112 or jhinkley@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.

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