The Pandemic Diary: May 7

Like everyone else I am having trouble thinking about anything other than the coronavirus pandemic and the shockwaves it has sent, and will continue to send, through the system. As it began to unfold I found myself thinking, talking, and posting about it fairly constantly. In an effort to try to keep it confined to a given time and place, both physically and psychologically, I am keeping a diary of it all.

Follow this Category for all entries.

 

May 7: It started with a plan. It is ending with a “gamble.” In the meantime we’ve witnessed the abject failure of our government to protect its people from harm.

For the past two months Ohio has done an admirable job responding to the pandemic. The state, led by our governor, Mike DeWine, received rave reviews nationally, from both Democrats and Republicans for its proactive approach.

DeWine closed one of the state’s biggest events — the Arnold Sports Festival — in early March, before most people even realized what was coming down the pike. He recommended colleges suspend in-person classes. Other states followed our lead. He closed Ohio’s public schools. Other states followed our lead. On March 15 DeWine ordered all restaurants and bars closed when cable news was still running video of packed establishments elsewhere in the country. Within days other states followed our lead.

As March and then April wore on DeWine was praised — by this writer included — for eschewing politics and basing his decisions on medical and scientific expertise. That he was accompanied at almost every one of his nearly-daily press conferences by Dr. Amy Acton of the Ohio Department of Health — described by The New York Times as “not only the brains behind the state’s early, aggressive coronavirus response; but also its most effective messenger,” — was both encouraging and even inspiring. Trump and the federal government may have thrown us to the wolves, but we were in good hands with Mike DeWine.

As the conversation turned to the matter of reopening, DeWine continued to show prudence. While governors in Texas and Tennessee and Georgia simply decided to open the states for business without even pretending to care about the adverse public health effects, DeWine took a more cautious tack.

On April 27, DeWine announced a stepped schedule in which first hospitals, then warehouses and manufacturing facilities, and then offices would open, followed later by consumer retail. He stressed that it was data and science dictating this schedule. He specifically left off the opening of places for which people were clamoring the most: restaurants, bars, hair salons, nail salons, and day care centers. The reason? The personal, public interaction in such places was too close. The numbers and the conditions on the ground mitigated against even putting those on the schedule yet.

What was needed before that can happen? DeWine specifically laid it out: a ramped-up number of COVID-19 tests, more effective contact tracing, the production of swabs, and the acquisition and distribution of personal protective equipment. Contrary to the disingenuous argument of the open-everything-now crowd, the point was not to wait for “zero infections” or “zero deaths.” The point was to have a situation in place in which people who were infected could know it and could isolate themselves in order not to infect others. It was not, by any stretch of the imagination, an unreasonable ask.

Today, ten days later, DeWine announced the opening bars and restaurants, barber shops, hair salons and other personal care businesses. Barber shops, salons, spas and the like can open May 15. Restaurants can open for outdoor dining May 15 and inside dining May 21. Both groups have guidelines they must abide by, devised by different working groups comprised of industry representatives from across the state. Notably, those working groups consist exclusively of executives and business owners, not hourly workers who will be in the line of fire.

 

What changed? Did we suddenly ramp up that testing? Contact tracing? PPE production? No. Yesterday there were only 8,000 tests performed in Ohio. DeWine said earlier this week that we will only have 22,000 tests available a day by the end of May and those will only be for those already hospitalized and for healthcare workers. We still have the same shortages of PPE we had ten days ago. We still are experiencing an increasing number of infected and an increasing number of dead. Today, instead of numbers and testing, DeWine talked about “risks” and the need for workers and customers who will now be wading back into the public sphere, to “take a gamble” and how we need to rely on people to “do the right thing.”

The governor has simply changed his mind. Instead of letting science dictate our course of action, we’re now just rolling the dice.

Maybe a revolt in his own party has something to do with it. Earlier this week the Republican-dominated Ohio Legislature — in what was clearly a rebuke of DeWine — passed a bill seeking to limit Dr. Acton’s power. Underlying that action were increasingly reactionary responses to the state’s health orders by Republicans and increasing personal attacks on Dr. Acton, some of which compared Acton — who is Jewish — to Nazis.

DeWine has vowed to veto any bill that would curb Acton’s authority, but it’s hard to see DeWine’s announcement today as anything but a cave-in to those agitating to open up the state more quickly. If you doubt that, the fact that Ohio’s Loony Caucus is now scrambling to match what DeWine did in an effort to claim political ownership over the reopening of businesses is all you need to know:

So we’re opening back up.

At least everyone is being strongly encouraged to wear masks.

Oh, wait:

With few exceptions, Ohio’s Republican lawmakers flouted federal guidelines recommending everyone wear masks in congregate settings. Democrats heeded them. Barefaced, Speaker of the House Larry Householder, R-Glenford, said he didn’t even own a mask.

“It’s just a personal matter for people,” he said to a gaggle of masked reporters. “Some are comfortable with it and some aren’t.”

It’s not a matter of “comfort.” Anyone who has been in public over the past few weeks knows that a great many people are not wearing masks and that, actually, it has become a strange point of aggressive political protest on the part of many to specifically not wear masks.

Governor DeWine, any help?

Gulp.

So, if we don’t have testing, contact tracing, PPE, improving infection and death metrics and we have an insane subset of the population aggressively eschewing masks, what do we have?

Well, during the press conference today the chairwoman of the working group who helped decide that it was time to open restaurants said, “we’re Buckeyes, we know we can do this.”

So there you are. School spirit will keep us alive. Go Bucks.

 

My state is not the only entity in which I have a vested interest caving in. Major League Baseball said today that it plans to submit a return-to-play proposal to the players within a week.

As I wrote the other day, I believe MLB has simply deemed July 4 to be the start date — largely for symbolic and political purposes — and, as seems to be the case with Ohio’s reopening, the actual science and public health considerations of the matter are secondary at best. I will change my mind on this if and when Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred states with some actual scientific and numerical specificity what, exactly, he is looking at or what he is being told with respect to COVID-19 abatement that made him determine that early July is an appropriate date.

And, no, “we have received assurances from Governor So-and-So” or non-specific references to “the opinion of public health officials” or whatever doesn’t cut it. Mostly because, as we’re seeing with Ohio, that kind of stuff is all just a gamble. It’s all just gut feeling prodded along by political calculation. Also because there is a clear movement afoot to silence medical and public health expertise and to stifle any possible source of dissent on that score as we rush headlong into reopening.

For example, today it was reported that the Trump Administration has pulled the plug on a detailed plan developed by CDC scientists which provided detailed guidance on what steps should be taken by the government, businesses, and the public to ensure safety during a reopening of the economy and public life. A CDC official, speaking to the Associated Press, said that agency scientists were told the document “would never see the light of day.”

The reason it was buried, I suspect, is that the document made it pretty clear just how out-of-the-ordinary life will have to be in order for any reopening to happen. Things like eliminating buffets and drink stations. Things like decision trees of how to deal with things if there is a concern of infection or contamination. All of which, I suspect, cuts against the “everything is normal” message Trump and seemingly everyone else in power wants to send.

Meanwhile, in Arizona, the governor has ended a program in which the state’s health department was working with academic experts on modeling and predicting the course the pandemic will take, most likely because they are predicting a future peak which undercuts the governor’s aggressive reopening plan. The state said, instead, that they will rely on “real-time” information from federal agencies. Which would be fine, except that sort of information is not released publicly. They can say anything they want to support their political agenda of reopening the economy and there is no way to tell if it actually reflects good public health practices. Indeed, given the move to cut off access to public information from experts, you can be almost 100% certain that it will not reflect good practices.

 

The government and private industry is putting on a full-court press to bury bad news. To bury information that may remind people of how dangerous things are. To ensure that their aggressive and irresponsible reopening plans are met with as little resistance as possible. As long as we keep shutting down the work of scientists and experts whose work reveals that our reopening of the economy is, actually, disastrous, our reopening of the economy will be considered a raging success.

That’s the illusion that is in the process of being created. The reality: we have just given up.

Mike DeWine gave it two months of strong effort that turned out to be false hustle and then caved. Other governors put in five or six weeks of eyewash before deciding that it was better to simply pretend everything was fine. Trump, at best, pretended to care for a couple of weeks but no one was ever really buying it.

So now DeWine is talking about how we need to “gamble” on things going OK. Other governors are simply blowing sunshine up everyone’s ass and saying things are OK. Trump, meanwhile, is rebranding Americans as “warriors” in order to make all the coming illnesses and deaths look honorable and patriotic. Those who were supposed to lead us are putting it all back on the people and offering us little more than thoughts and prayers. We’re our own.

Why? Because preparing for and fighting the pandemic was simply too hard for them. Too hard for America. America, unlike Germany and South Korea, didn’t have the will to put in the necessary work, so we didn’t.

We have failed. Our government — our very society — has failed at its single most important task: to protect its citizens from harm. Not because it was impossible, but simply because it was hard.

Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the national baseball writer for NBCSports.com. He writes about things other than sports at Craigcalcaterra.com. He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.