CHAPEL HILL – A lot of unsolicited opinions from the campus of UNC are right in line with Governor Roy Cooper’s politics, but one of the university’s economists is seriously perplexed at Cooper’s heavy-handed lockdown policies.
As an economist, a cost-benefit analysis marks Martin Zelder’s approach examining the ‘risk abatement’ strategy taken by Cooper within the lockdown vs reopen. Zelder’s conclusion? Basically, ‘Why the hell are we doing this?’
Zelder, as published on the Lockerroom Blog by the John Locke Foundation:
“Why Are We Still In Coronavirus Lockdown?
Suppose you lived in a swamp that was infested by mosquitoes whose bites cause illness and occasionally death, and I proposed to you the following: tear out all vegetation, drain all bodies of water, and only go outdoors 15 minutes a day. And suppose that I insisted that you continue these practices every day for as long as mosquitoes are still a risk. Would you want me to be your Mosquito Abatement Commissioner?
The example is silly, but the analogy, to North Carolina’s coronavirus policy, is not. It raises a number of questions—answered here—whose answers are being overlooked at our peril.
Compared to the rest of the U.S., how serious is North Carolina’s current coronavirus risk? Not very. North Carolina (with 10.5 million residents) now has 17,000 coronavirus cases, or 1,500 coronavirus cases for every 1 million (!) people living in North Carolina. Is 1,500 per million a big number? Not compared to other states in our country. In the U.S., the average is 4,300 cases per million people, roughly 3 times the N.C. rate. (Some numbers are rounded to make them easier to digest.) We have had 590 deaths from coronavirus, or 60 deaths per million citizens. The U.S. average is 250, more than four times the N.C. death rate.
Are North Carolina’s coronavirus case and death numbers improving or worsening over time? It’s improving (by most measures). Obviously, there are more new cases and new deaths every day, meaning that North Carolina’s 1,500 cases (per million people) and 60 deaths (per million people) will mathematically rise every day. Widely publicized are the numbers of new cases each day. And, daily new cases are rising: 233 per day during the week April 1-7 up to 457 per day the week of May 6-12. This current daily case rate is two times that from early April.
Do growing case numbers accurately reflect North Carolina’s risk? Not very well. First, the growth in new cases is an inescapable and mechanical consequence of the enormous growth in daily testing. Over April 1-7 there were 2,800 new tests per day, but this number has grown every week, reaching more than 7,000 per day for the week of May 6-12. This new daily testing rate, 2.5 times its baseline level, has resulted in two times more daily cases. By itself, this is neither surprising nor worrisome. The true issue is the following: how sick are those with existing and new infections?
Are there people in North Carolina dying from the coronavirus? Yes, but there are very encouraging signs. Every day, I calculate the fraction of coronavirus cases who are in a North Carolina hospital (and many other pertinent numbers). With 17,000 cases and 500 hospitalized, the current fraction is 3%, which has fallen from 7% only three weeks ago. Of those hospitalized, the fraction who die is 0.7 percent (or 7 per 1,000) down from 4% three weeks ago. This means that about four hospitalized coronavirus patients are dying each day. (About 230 North Carolinians die each day from causes other than the coronavirus.)
Is the risk to the general public lower than current data suggest? Yes. Many people have become increasingly aware that there are high rates of coronavirus infection and death in what the state calls “congregate living” situations: nursing homes, adult care facilities, correctional facilities. There are slightly more than 100,000 N.C. residents in congregate living—that is, they are about 1% of our state’s population. So, our state’s death rate—about 60 deaths per million N.C. citizens—is the average for people in congregate living and the other 99% of us who are not. Of the 528 deaths where the state can identify people in congregate living settings and those not, 359 have occurred in congregate living and 169 outside of congregate living—68% of all deaths with attributed locations have occurred in congregate living. Put another way, 359 deaths out of a congregate-living population of more than 100,000 is a death rate exceeding 0.3% (1 out of 300 people in congregate living). This tells us two things: There is a much more serious coronavirus situation in congregate living, and a much less serious situation for those 99% not in congregate living. By comparison, the 169 non-congregate-living deaths relative to the non-congregate-living N.C. population of 10.4 million is a death rate of 0.002% (1 out of 50,000 people not in congregate living).