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Protect grandma, but send the young back to work

Photo by Eli Duke

OPINION

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

Several county commissioners yesterday mischaracterized the views of people who don’t support their lockdown policies. Marihelen Wheeler said face masks are a reminder “that we’ve not been gaslighted into thinking that this thing never happened and that somehow we were all duped.” Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson said that about 1/3 of comments on his recent Facebook posts were from people “believing that this whole thing’s gonna blow over and go away.”

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People who support lockdown policies (which locally have translated to banning the operations of “non-essential” businesses, many of the normal operations of “essential” businesses, and “elective” medical and dental procedures) say that these policies keep us safe and that those who oppose them just want to kill grandma.

However, few people are advocating for a return to the “old normal.” Although we had some data in early March about how different populations fared with COVID-19, we weren’t sure how reliable the data were. Now we know that this disease is very dangerous for people over 65 and moderately dangerous for those over 55, but really not particularly dangerous for those under 55.

Anyone who gives you overall fatality rates and uses them to advocate one-size-fits-all restrictions on the general population has an agenda that goes beyond public health. Not only is COVID-19 less dangerous than the flu for people under 55, not one person under the age of 25 has died in the state of Florida. (Yes, people under the age of 25 have died elsewhere, and even more people under the age of 35 have died. People in those age brackets die every day from car crashes, suicide, drug overdoses, aggressive cancers, fluke accidents, brain aneurysms, etc.) The fact remains that if you are under the age of 45 in the state of Florida, you have a 99.73% chance of surviving COVID-19 if you test positive. (And, of course, that percentage gets much better when you take into account the antibody studies showing that a significant number of cases are never formally diagnosed.) Between the ages of 45 and 54, you have a 99.2% chance of surviving. Between 55 and 64, you have a 97.8% chance of surviving. These death rates include people with pre-existing conditions, so we don’t know what the death rate is for healthy people or even the details of what makes a person “healthy” regarding COVID-19. 

The stark contrast between the fatality rates for older and younger people (at the other end of the spectrum, 23% of people over 85 who test positive end up dying) means that there is an opportunity to make public policy that protects our older community members while younger people go back to school and back to work. Such a policy would keep businesses from going under, protect supply chains, free up delivery resources for the people who need them, free up government resources for the vulnerable (instead of everyone who has been thrown out of work by the lockdown), and avoid the loss of a significant part of a school year for children who do not have access to the internet and parents who are able to oversee their schooling.

Also, opening the economy does not force anyone to do anything they’re not comfortable doing. The state education commissioner already said that he doesn’t expect all children to go back to school, even in the fall. People who live with vulnerable family members can continue to choose to stay home—and with fewer people needing help, government resources will stretch farther. 

Life isn’t safe. Going out of the house opens a person to the possibility of death from car crashes, crime, freak accidents, and infectious diseases. COVID-19 isn’t “just flu,” but for younger people, it’s not worse than flu. 

As we go out and mingle again, cases will increase, but that’s okay as long as hospitals don’t start filling up. Remember “flatten the curve”? The goalposts have shifted, but the original idea was to spread out cases over time so hospitals don’t get overwhelmed. Now the goal seems to be keeping everyone from ever getting the virus, and that’s unrealistic. The virus is out there, and people will continue to be infected with it forever, just like flu. Not everyone will get vaccines, and vaccines aren’t 100% effective. Every person who is infected and recovers is one less potentially-contagious person. Over time, as people develop immunity to the virus (even if it’s partial immunity or for a limited time), fewer people will be infected. 

The next argument is that opening the economy or going out without a face mask will kill grandma, but the whole idea of having different expectations for older and younger people is that older people will continue to self-isolate. We must continue to focus resources on long-term care facilities, all residential institutions, and group homes. Retail operations may want to consider something like my modest proposal, which separates shopping hours into times for older/vulnerable people (or those who prefer that everyone wears a mask) and times for the healthy population. 

The most important thing about this plan is that it preserves businesses, jobs, and the supply chain for food, medications, and other goods. Most older people don’t work, so their income hasn’t been significantly affected by the lockdowns. In fact, many got (or will get) extra income from the “stimulus” checks. Many working-age people have now gone 6 weeks without income; some of that will be replaced (eventually) by unemployment or stimulus money, but they are digging into holes of debt that will be difficult to climb out of. Young people are in little danger from the virus, and they are the ones most at risk from suicide, drug overdoses, and domestic abuse. It makes no sense to toss them aside to protect grandma when grandma can stay home with little economic downside. 

Yes, there is a huge mental-health downside for seniors who are isolated, but we’ll be able to be more creative about that problem when we’re not dealing with the huge mental-health downside of isolating everyone. 

The next time you hear someone talk about keeping everyone home until it is “safe,” ask yourself whether they’re still getting a salary (odds are VERY good that they are). The unemployed who can’t get through the state unemployment system and are about to miss their second rent payment don’t have a public voice, but we can’t ignore their desperation any more than we can ignore grandma’s vulnerability to this virus. We must balance the public policy so it has minimal negative impact, and protecting the old while sending the young back to school and work is a much better policy than the lockdowns that are so popular with politicians and others who are being paid to stay home.