When Stanford University School of Medicine professor John IoannidIs warned on March 17 that the rush to implement sweeping coronavirus lockdowns could be “a once-in-a-century evidence fiasco,” his was a lone voice amid the rising pandemic panic.
Not any longer. As the statistical models on deaths are revised downward, and the economic and social costs of the stay-at-home strategy grow more dire, contrarians are diving into the data and asking whether the lockdown pain was worth the gain — or if the COVID-19 reaction was overblown.
“It is now clear that the lockdowns were a major mistake everywhere except the New York City metro area, and possibly even there,” said author and former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson, a leading voice among the COVID-19 contrarians.
“The argument as to whether they were a mistake in NYC rests on a couple of complicated debates about whether they work at all/in time to make a difference, but everywhere else, it is clear that the coronavirus is simply not dangerous enough to the general population to justify the measures we have taken,” Mr. Berenson said in an email.
Mr. Berenson, who characterizes the debate as one between “Team Pandemic” and “Team Reality,” has received plenty of pushback from shutdown supporters as the argument rages over whether the states should stay locked down or move more quickly to open up.
Dr. Ioannidis said the lockdowns initially were “the right thing to do,” based on the lack of reliable data, but widespread social isolation is no longer the appropriate response to what he described as a “very common, mild infection for the vast majority of the population.”
“Concurrently, it is an extremely devastating infection when it hits specific settings, in particular nursing homes and contaminated hospitals at full capacity,” he said in an email. “Based on what we know now, draconian measures focused on protecting these vulnerable settings … seems more efficient and appropriate as a strategy than continuing blind, overarching lockdown.”
The shutdown’s drawbacks include “poor disease outcomes and health system collapse as patients avoid hospitals; massive unemployment leading to people becoming uninsured and susceptible to many diseases, far worse than coronavirus; increase of the number of people at risk of starvation to 1.1 billion,” he said.
“Currently the harms of prolonging lockdown are so overwhelming … that we urgently need to find ways to move away from lockdown,” said Dr. Ioannidis.
Last week, Drs. Dan Erickson and Artin Massihi, both urgent care physicians in Bakersfield, California, drew national attention for advocating lifting the state’s severe shelter-in-place restrictions, describing the coronavirus as comparable to the flu, with “millions of cases, small amount of death.”
“[Y]ou have a 0.03% chance of dying from Covid in the state of California,” said Dr. Dan Erickson, co-owner of seven Accelerated Urgent Care facilities in Kern County. “Does that necessitate sheltering in place? Does that necessitate shutting down medical systems? Does that necessitate people being out of work?”
The video of their press conference went viral after it was retweeted Sunday by Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who said “Docs make good points.” But the physicians drew a stern rebuke from the American College of Emergency Physicians and American College of Emergency Medicine.
“These reckless and untested musings do not speak for medical societies and are inconsistent with current science and epidemiology regarding COVID-19,” said the statement posted on CalMatters. “As owners of local urgent care clinics, it appears these two individuals are releasing biased, non-peer reviewed data to advance their personal financial interests without regard for the public’s health.”
Most states have enacted a shutdown based on the recommendations of public-health authorities led by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has said it is “critical that you do your part to slow the spread of the coronavirus” by, for example, working from home and avoiding discretionary travel and gatherings of 10 or more.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom urged residents Tuesday to continue to adhere to social-distancing rules, tweeting “CA is flattening the curve, but the reality is #COVID19 is not going away soon.”
‘Pandemic is over’?
His message was a far cry from that of economist George Gilder, who declared Saturday in RealClearMarkets that the “pandemic is over” and called for the nation to “stop the economic suicide and get back to work.”
He and others increasingly have cited the business-as-usual approach adopted by Sweden, which has isolated its elderly and vulnerable, and limited gatherings to 50 or fewer, but kept open elementary schools, restaurants and shops.
The result is that Sweden’s cases and deaths are higher than those in neighboring Denmark, Finland and Norway, but lower than those in Spain and Italy, the most devastated European countries.
“Sweden is developing herd immunity by refusing to panic,” National Review’s John Fund and Joel Hay said in April 6 article, which predicted Sweden would prove the “alarmists” wrong.
Mr. Gilder cited a global study by Tel Aviv University professor Isaac Ben-Israel, a mathematician and chairman of Israel’s National Council for Research and Development, who found that the virus peaks after about 40 days and that spread fades to nearly zero after 70 days.
The phenomenon occurred worldwide no matter if the country enacted a strict lockdown or followed the Swedish example, according to Mr. Ben-Israel’s April 16 paper.
“Certainly, a full complete lockdown reduces the spread of the virus,” said the study. “However, as the above data shows, there is an apparent similar decline in the rate of infection even in countries that did not enforce a full shutdown.”
Other experts have argued that Israel’s death toll would have been higher without the ongoing social-isolation measures. Former Health Ministry Director-General Gabi Barbash was one of Israel’s coronavirus victims.
“I strongly urge that we not let mathematicians — who know nothing about biology — determine when we lift the lockdown,” Mr. Barbash told the Times of Israel.
An analysis by Cypress Semiconductor founder T.J. Rodgers in the Wall Street Journal said that Sweden falls in the “middle of the pack” when compared to the rest of Europe, and that its death rate is also lower than that of the seven hardest-hit U.S. states.
Mr. Rodgers and two other Silicon Valley entrepreneurs — Joe Malchow and Yinon Weiss — found almost no evidence that states that enacted immediate shutdowns fared better in terms of per-capita death rates than those that waited or never did.
A stronger correlation emerged with population density. “That suggests New York City might have benefited from its shutdown — but blindly copying New York’s policies in places with low COVID-19 death rates, such as my native Wisconsin, doesn’t make sense,” said the Monday article.
Mr. Weiss offered a more detailed analysis of statewide shutdowns on Medium, but said his post was removed and then reposted. The April 19 article now includes a disclaimer: “Anyone can publish on Medium but we don’t fact-check every story. For more info about the coronavirus, see cdc.gov.”
“When data flies in the face of intuition, you must dig deeper. If after scrutiny that data still violates intuition, you must question the narrative,” tweeted Mr. Weiss. “Social distancing works, but shutting down businesses might give 10% of the benefit for 90% of the pain.”