Ad says economic hit is worse than the threat of COVID-19. Is that true?

Chairs are stacked on top of each other in an empty restaurant.
Chairs are stacked on tables at D-Brian's restaurant in the Minneapolis skyway on March 19, 2020. Bars and restaurants have been ordered to temporarily close to dine in customers to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
Chris Juhn for MPR News file

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Over the weekend, a quarter-page, anonymously written ad appeared in the Saturday edition of the Star Tribune.

Titled “Stop the Economic Suicide,” the ad reiterated the idea that the economic hit from using social distancing to stop the spread of COVID-19 is worse than letting the virus run its course with less stringent mitigation efforts.

It’s a claim similar to one that President Trump made recently.

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MPR News reporter Tim Nelson tracked down the ad’s author, Kevin Roche, who has worked in health care, including serving as former general counsel of UnitedHealth Group. He told Nelson that he has two main concerns.

“As usual, when there’s an economic downturn — and this one is going to be exceptionally severe — it’s low-income people who disproportionately bear the burden of that,” Roche said. “Somebody needs to speak up on behalf of what’s happening to these people.”

“My other primary concern is, this is a very undemocratic way to do this,” he said referring to Gov. Tim Walz’s use of his emergency authority during the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Emergency orders are designed for situations that are maybe two or three days in length. This has been going on for weeks. It’s going to go on for more weeks, months. Where’s the Legislature?” he said, pointing out that they are not meeting regularly to honor social distancing measures. “The Legislature should be making decisions about what are the appropriate measures.”

Roche argues that it will take the United States a long time to bounce back from this economic downturn.

It’s true that social distancing has already come at great economic cost, said V.V. Chari, a University of Minnesota economics professor and an adviser to the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

He pointed out that in just the last two weeks, nearly 10 million Americans filed for first-time unemployment.

“That is a huge economic loss, which has to be taken into account in thinking about the appropriate policy responses,” he said.

Chari said policy makers in St. Paul and in Washington simply don’t have enough data to know how this will play out — which means no one knows the right remedy.

“These are extremely hard choices, but we’re making those choices flying blind,” he said.

Roche’s approach, which advocates for reopening schools and businesses soon, could significantly increase the number of people who die from the virus because hospitals may not have enough lifesaving ventilators if too many people are sick at the same time, Chari said.

But social distancing restrictions also come with serious downsides, he added.

If social distancing restrictions lift relatively soon, Chari said the economy may bounce back fairly fast. But if these restrictions go on for months — which Chari says could be likely given the policy trajectory he sees at the state and federal level — the economic pain will be much deeper.

He used the example of someone who cuts hair for a living:

“If this regime continues for another two, three months, your hairdresser is going to go out of business. They can’t make their payroll, they can’t make their interest payments on their debts, they’re going to have to default.”

To restart that business, Chari said, will be much harder.

Chari said governments should ease some social-distancing restrictions, but simultaneously test many more people for the virus, tracing their contacts and isolating them.

But with a testing supply shortage, that hasn’t happened.

“I think both the prolonged lockdown, which is catastrophic in terms of economic outcomes and the let’s-get-back-to-business immediately model, which is subject to catastrophic health outcomes, are unwise policy proposals,” said Chari.

While, Roche raises some important questions about the long-term impact of social distancing policies on the economy, his ad also recirculated some myths about COVID-19 that downplay the gravity of the situation.

Fact check 1) Is COVID-19 like the common flu?

For the most part, it’s not, said Dr. Nipunie Rajapakse, a pediatric medicine and infectious disease specialist at Mayo Clinic.

“Coronavirus is a novel virus, so that means it’s not something people have been infected with in the past,” she said. “No one in the community has preexisting protection or immunity from it — unlike influenza where with vaccine or prior infection, you have a smaller population that’s vulnerable to this.”

And more importantly, she said: “All the information we have now definitely suggests that this is a more serious or more deadly infection than flu.”

One similarity between the two viruses is that they are both spread by coughing and sneezing, Rajapakse said.

Fact check 2) Governments didn’t order widespread closures during the swine flu outbreak of 2009-2010

A decade ago, the U.S. was dealing with another novel virus that largely affected younger people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Rajapakse said that while public health experts can learn from previous pandemics, it’s difficult to compare the U.S. response to the swine flu(H1N1) to its response to COVID-19 because the two viruses behave differently.

“What we’re going through right now is quite unprecedented. We haven’t had prior outbreaks that have quite behaved the way this one is behaving,” she said.

A big difference between the two viruses is the death rate: H1N1’s was .02 percent while the death rate for coronavirus is between 3-4 percent, according to the World Health Organization.

Moreover, back in 2009, the U.S. government wasted no time identifying people infected with H1N1, creating a test and sharing that test globally. And a vaccine was available within five months of the pandemic being declared.

Meanwhile, testing for coronavirus in the United States has been slow to start, and remains unavailable for many. And a vaccine for COVID-19 is still in development.

Fact check 3) Are social distancing policies mandated by government leaders ‘only delaying, not preventing, the loss of a few lives?’

Social distancing “doesn’t necessarily decrease the total number of people who get infected,” said Rajapakse.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not a useful tool to fight the virus, she said.

“It spreads them out over time enough that if you do get sick, eight to 12 weeks from now, there’s a better chance that we will have a ventilator, we will have the equipment to better take care of patients.”

In Minnesota, the stay-at-home order is largely meant to allow the state to prepare extra facilities to treat COVID-19 patients, and for hospitals to secure much needed supplies to help everyone who gets sick.

The latest estimates from the Trump administration show that between 100,000 and 240,000 Americans will die during this pandemic, and that’s assuming social distancing is strict and happens across the nation consistently.

MPR News Reporter Tim Nelson contributed to this story.