Good news, everyone; the threat from the coronavirus pandemic is over, “the emergency has been contained,” you should now be allowed to go about your lives as you did before Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” orders were put in place March 23.
At least that’s the opinion expressed in a lawsuit filed last week in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington in Tacoma by eight state residents, including four Republican state lawmakers, challenging the governor’s emergency stay-at-home orders.
Noting, correctly, that the peak of demand for hospital resources — specifically ventilators — has passed and social-distancing measures have reduced the rate of infections, the lawsuit contends that, except for the danger to vulnerable populations, “We can declare victory.”
“We know that the emergency has been averted. … We know that there is no longer an emergency in the state.”
Don’t everyone rush for the bars and the hair salons at the same time.
The truth is, of course, that — even with some indications of success that can be credited to the efforts of the overwhelming majority of Washington residents to respect social-distancing steps and reduce opportunities for community transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19 — the threat of pandemic remains, as does the need to cautiously lift the restrictions we’ve all been living under.
Despite the cherry-picked examples cited in the lawsuit that either the threat was overblown or the danger has passed — the lawsuit can’t seem to decide which — Washington state, like the rest of the nation, still must watch its footing as it descends the down-slope of infections and the toll of deaths.
As of Friday, there were 16,231 cases of COVID-19 across the state, with 891 fatalities. Snohomish County public health officials have tallied 2,637 cases and 115 fatalities.
Early on, Washington state was touted for its quick reaction and success in holding down community transmission and deaths, including by Dr. Deborah Birx, the Trump administration’s coronavirus response coordinator. That praise is still warranted, but control of the numbers has recently slipped in terms of projected deaths in the state from the virus.
In mid-April, the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, projected that Washington state, if it continued social-distancing practices until June 1, could expect total fatalities of about 850 people. Since then, the institute has revised its projections for Washington and the other states; it now warns of more than 1,150 deaths here.
Nationwide, the institute projected in mid-April a total of about 62,000 deaths; now it estimates more than double that figure: 134,475 deaths.
A significant reason for the change, the IHME explains in a May 4 update: “It appears that many populations are exhibiting increases in movement and thus possible interactions with each other, even in places where distancing policies remain in place.”
The problem with the lawsuit, and others recently filed or proposed — including one promised by initiative promoter and candidate for governor, Tim Eyman, to require the reopening of public schools — is not that they would be successful, but that they encourage people to ignore social distancing measures and increase the disease’s spread.
The advice of Franklin County Commissioner Clint Didier, lead plaintiff in another Eyman lawsuit, proclaimed as much during a May 1 news conference: “We can take care of this virus by letting the people catch it.”
Is the 61-year-old former NFL player and unsuccessful candidate for state and federal offices offering to go first? (We shouldn’t have to explain the danger in Didier’s suggestion, but we will: Allowing the uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 would indeed result in “herd immunity” from the virus, but it might come at the cost of up to 2.2 million American deaths.)
The concerns — of Republicans, Democrats and independents alike — for the jobs, livelihoods and small businesses run by Washington residents are legitimate. The steps taken to keep a lid on the virus’ spread have already placed a heavy burden on families, businesses and state and local economies. The shutdown’s far-reaching effects will take years to resolve. Yet having sustained that level of damage, do we risk even worse by lifting restrictions only to have to resume the economic lockdown because of a resurgence of the pandemic?
Earlier, Republicans in the state Legislature offered more constructive advice for a measured restart to the state economy, advice that recognized the need for more testing and screening of workers. And, while it hasn’t happened as quickly as many wanted to see, Gov. Inslee’s plans for a phased reopening for businesses and services are progressing.
But the key to that phased reopening is testing, and following that, reaching out to those infected and their contacts to isolate and limit community transmission. The supplies necessary for testing are beginning to arrive in the state, with the goal of testing between 20,000 and 30,000 state residents each day, but testing at that rate will require pledges made by private companies and the federal government to be kept.
Even if successful — fortunately, more than a long shot — the lawsuits attempting to end the stay-home and social-distancing measures would not be effective in allowing the state’s economy to resume and students to go back to school; those are decisions ultimately in the hands of 7.8 million state residents. Repeatedly, polls have shown an acceptance of the due caution those orders have put in place.
With a few exceptions, most in Washington state are not going to be convinced by empty declarations of victory or unverified assurances that the threat has passed.
Washingtonians are acting — not out of fear — but out of common sense.