More than eight in 10 Americans fear a second wave of the coronavirus outbreak, according to recent polling from Ipsos. Some cities and states have halted efforts to reopen their economies, in response to rising case counts.
But there’s no reason to be fearful. We now have enough information about the coronavirus and its impact to continue reopening safely. If we put this knowledge to good use, we can craft policies that protect the most vulnerable while allowing those for whom the virus poses little risk to resume normal activity.
The growth of new coronavirus cases is certainly worrisome. But a sober look at the data shows that the virus is not lethal to the majority of the population. About 80% of people who have died of covid-19 in the United States were 65 and older. As of June 29, 45% of U.S. covid-19 deaths had occurred in nursing homes or assisted-living facilities, according to the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity.
By contrast, people aged 25-44 account for roughly 3% of the nation’s covid-19 deaths. Children and teenagers are half as likely to contract the virus as adults 20 and older and rarely develop symptoms of covid-19, according to a study in the journal Nature Medicine.
With the right protections in place, most Americans could resume some semblance of normal life.
Rather than forcing people to stay home, policymakers could urge people to wear masks and social distance while going about their business. A recent study from researchers at Cambridge and Greenwich universities in Great Britain found that widespread mask wearing could prevent a second wave of covid-19.
Research published last month in Health Affairs found that mandating the use of face masks in public was associated with steady declines in the growth rate of covid-19. According to the authors, between 230,000 and 450,000 cases may have been averted because of these mask mandates. Given such research, not to mention the common-sense notion that covering one’s nose and mouth can limit the spread of disease, widespread mask-wearing is crucial to re-opening the economy.
Meanwhile, given that so many covid-19 deaths have happened in nursing homes and assisted-living communities, officials could invest far more resources in keeping these places safe. Such efforts could include everything from rigidly enforcing cleanliness protocols and severely restricting visitors to paying workers extra to live on site and testing staff and residents frequently.
Americans are growing increasingly frustrated with lockdowns. According to a new report from the American Enterprise Institute, just 58% of Americans want state officials to “take all measures” to protect public health, including shutting down businesses. That’s down from 78% who said the same in March. The proportion who support reopening even if it puts people at risk has doubled since March.
This frustration is understandable. More than 45 million people have filed for unemployment since mid-March. The lockdowns and have cost the average American household over $16,000. The economic collapse has hit minorities hardest. The unemployment rate for Black Americans has hit 16.8%; for Hispanics, it’s 17.6%.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates states will face a $555 billion shortfall in tax revenue over the next three years, thanks to the covid-19 lockdowns.
A new round of lockdowns would have more than just economic consequences. Over the past few months, stay-at-home orders have prevented numerous Americans with chronic diseases from seeking necessary medical treatment.
According to estimates from the Hoover Institution’s Scott Atlas, University of Chicago Professor John Birge, Duke University Professor Emeritus Ralph Keeney, and Hebrew University of Jerusalem Visiting Professor Alexander Lipton, the missed health care and unemployment caused by the lockdowns have collectively cost Americans about 1.5 million years of life.
Between the virus and the lockdowns, Americans are under a lot of stress. Lawmakers can help ease that stress with data-driven policies that empower people to go about their lives without jeopardizing public health.
Sally Pipes is president, CEO and Thomas W. Smith Fellow in Health Care Policy at the Pacific Research Institute. Follow her on Twitter @sallypipes.