Why We Should Liberate Vermont Now with a Full Turn of the Spigot

April 28, 2020

by Aimee Stephenson, Ph.D.

In Vermont, not unlike other states and countries, the justification for the economic shutdown and stay-at-home order was to ‘flatten the curve’ in the name of ensuring our hospitals and healthcare system were not overrun by a predicted tidal wave of COVID-19 patients. The  purpose of social distancing is to spread out cases, preventing hospitals from being overwhelmed, and in turn, avoiding deaths from COVID due to lack of available medical care.

As the reason for the shutdown was to avoid a particular cause of death (lack of hospital capacity), it would follow that the only relevant metric for deciding on whether to re-open the economy is hospital capacity. The key question our leaders should be asking themselves with regard to re-opening the economy is whether we currently have an issue with hospital capacity? The answer to this question is a resounding ‘no’.

The Vermont Department of Health has shared data on hospitalizations through their COVID-19 data dashboard. In the past three-week period, the number of Vermonters hospitalized due to COVID, which was not a large number to begin with, has since fallen precipitously. On April 7th, there were 29 hospitalized with COVID, and by April 24th this number was 12. Even if we add in those cases under investigation (suspected, but not confirmed, of having COVID) this number has fallen from 80 on April 7th to just 32.

It is important to keep these data points in mind, as well as the actual number of hospital beds available in Vermont (856), when considering the State’s wildly inaccurate models used to justify the current shutdown. Though not presented in any kind of consistent or straightforward manner, the following is a summary of the State’s modeling of hospital beds needed for COVID patients beginning in early April.

  • April 6 – The State predicted on April 26th Vermont would need, in the worst-case scenario, 2,405 beds for COVID patients and 828 in the “likely” scenario.
  • April 10 – The State slightly downgraded its estimate for the worst-case scenario on April 26th to somewhere between 2,083 to 2,212 beds, and the likely scenario also decreased to 200.
  • April 17 – A week after the first prediction of 2,405 beds needed, the State made a huge course correction in their modeling and predicted the worst-case scenario to be 200 beds on April 26th. It was this same number that just a few days prior was considered the likely scenario.
  • April 24 – A week later, the State maintained the worst-case scenario prediction of 200 beds needed, very different from the prediction three weeks prior of 2,405 beds.

One might ask at this point, what is going on here?! Why have the State’s predictions about the number of beds needed for COVID patients changed so radically in a three-week period? The answer lies in the actual data…the massive surge they were expecting, both in COVID cases and COVID hospitalizations, never occurred. At no point in the past three-week period have more than 34 COVID patients been hospitalized at any given time.

This scenario demonstrates why it is so dangerous to base sweeping policy decisions on modeling rather than real data. As a scientist, I am pro data-based planning and decision-making, but only if true, verifiable data exists. In Vermont and nationally, our leaders have not been making decisions based on data, but rather on models driven by fear and panic, inflicting huge costs to society, the economy, and millions of people’s lives.

Currently, Vermont has 856 hospital beds, far more than enough to accommodate the current worst-case scenario prediction of 200. So why are we still on lockdown? Why hasn’t the Governor lifted the restrictions that are taking a huge toll financially and personally on every single Vermonter?

I believe our leaders have lost sight of the original intent of the lockdown, which was to flatten the curve and preserve hospital capacity. Instead, politicians appear to be pandering to the collective psyche of fear and panic that have morphed into a new, misguided reason for keeping the lockdowns in place – preventing the spread of an airborne pathogen. No matter how long, how stringent, or how austere the lockdown measures are, it is completely irrational and unreasonable to believe we can actually prevent the spread of COVID-19.

What Vermonters and the nation need to come to grips with is the fact we coexist with viruses, both known and unknown, every day and have done so since the beginning of human life on earth. We are no more likely to be able to prevent the spread of an airborne illness such as COVID-19 than we are able to prevent the rising and setting of the sun. Yes, social distancing and lockdowns can slow the spread, but eventually a large proportion of Vermont and the world population will come in contact with COVID-19.

The idea that we might keep the lockdowns in place until we have a vaccine is a similarly misguided notion. This approach is completely unsustainable from an economic and societal perspective. Additionally, there is an important argument to be made for lifting the current restrictions as soon as possible as an important strategic next step in reducing harm from COVID-19 and protecting our most vulnerable populations. 

What is known from real data – not models – is the novel coronavirus does not pose a huge problem for the vast majority of Vermonters. They will either experience no symptoms because their immune system effectively fights the virus off, or they will experience mild symptoms.

Another fact we are learning from real data is only a portion of the population is likely to be severely, adversely impacted by COVID-19. As of April 10, 78% of COVID-related deaths in the United States were in people 65 and older, and nearly all were comorbidities where the presence of another chronic disease or condition contributes to death. This is the population we need to protect and focus our efforts on. The current lockdown is not the best way to protect vulnerable Vermonters.

Long before a vaccine is ever developed, herd immunity will occur and protect our most vulnerable from COVID-19. Herd immunity is the phenomenon whereby the novel coronavirus is no longer able to readily spread once a certain percentage of the population has been exposed. Keeping the lockdowns in place, and in particular school closures, prevent the natural progression of the novel coronavirus through the population and delays the development of herd immunity. Many are terrified of lifting the restrictions and further spread of the novel coronavirus. But in truth, it appears the virus has already spread more than we previously thought. We are learning from recent antibody studies done in Santa Clara, Los Angeles, and New York City that a much larger portion of the total population has already been exposed to the novel coronavirus.

While there is understandably trepidation about lifting restrictions, it is also important to remember that for most of us, COVID-19 is not going to be a problem. For those among us who are vulnerable, I would argue Vermont should be focusing its public information campaigns, testing capacity and healthcare resources on this population specifically. Doctors and other healthcare professionals who test positive for antibodies, indicating they have developed immunity to the virus, are the ones best suited to care for these vulnerable populations as they pose no risk of passing the coronavirus on.

With this perspective, lifting restrictions now is the most responsible action Vermont can take to develop herd immunity as soon as possible. Not only is this an important step in protecting our vulnerable populations, but it will potentially prevent the very real possibility of a second wave of the pandemic. If we delay the development of herd immunity much longer, the virus will go dormant over the warm summer months only to rear up again in the fall. Do our leaders not see that merely delaying the inevitable is to our extreme detriment?

Federal and state governments are obsessed with tracking the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths. While it is important to monitor the spread of the novel coronavirus, these numbers are not relevant to the decision to open the economy. The only relevant metric here is hospital capacity, which is currently in over-abundance in Vermont as evidenced by recent hospital furloughs. Citing millions of dollars in lost revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Bennington-based Southwestern Vermont Health Care furloughed 100 of its 1,400 workers. The Rutland Regional Medical Center also recently put 9% of its staff on unpaid leave.

It would seem from these furloughs that Vermont has an overabundance of healthcare capacity, yet the real tragedy here are the Vermonters suffering from life-threatening conditions, such as cancer, who have been denied so-called “elective surgeries.” Why are the lives of these patients less important than those who get COVID-19? And why does the State selectively ignore important and real data concerning the staggering unemployment numbers (over 70,000 claims) and lost revenue to Vermont (estimated at over $170 million)? These numbers aren’t based on “models,” but reflect real consequences for every Vermonter, not just a portion of the State’s residents.

I could go on about flawed data, such as the New York City death toll that has been inflated with “presumed” and unconfirmed case numbers, or the long history of such experts such as Neil Ferguson of Imperial College in generating outrageously apocalyptic forecasts, but is it necessary? 

It is time, now, to abandon misleading and detrimental models and act on what we know with certainty. We need to immediately open Vermont’s economy with a full and generous turn of the spigot. It’s worth pointing out that even without government interference, Vermonters are not likely to suddenly abandon common sense in using hygienic practices such as social distancing, wearing masks, washing hands, and staying home when sick. Many Vermonters have suffered such panic and anxiety they are not likely to gratuitously come out of hiding any time soon.

But for the vast majority of Vermonters who have suffered greatly under the lockdown, there is no other conscionable decision but to immediately re-open the economy and liberate Vermont from restrictions that are also counterproductive to protecting our most vulnerable from COVID-19. We desperately need our politicians and leaders to make rational decisions based on real data to lead Vermont out of this crisis.

Aimee Stephenson has a doctorate is in Microbiology and Molecular Genetics from the University of Vermont (2001)

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Eugene C Rizner April 28, 2020 at 9:59 pm

I heard today that mask wearing and social distancing must continue until there is a viable vaccine available. How is this a logical reason to continue the current lock down? I get the annual flu vaccine only if it is free and I don’t have to make an appointment. I’ve had two in the past ten years. This is very low on my seasonal “to do list”. When COVID19 vaccine is available, I will probably apply the same criteria for getting one. How many others skip it for one reason or another? What is the actual rate of participation and can that be used to predict how many will get the new vaccine? Point being that if that is the reason for extending “Stay Home/Stay Safe” it needs to be over now.

Reply

Kay Trudell April 29, 2020 at 12:23 pm

The liberal rulers in Montpelier don’t mean “stay home, stay safe” as much as they mean “stay house-arrested, stay serfs”. It is time to open up Vermont.

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Scott Tighe April 29, 2020 at 3:12 pm

If you put a surgical mask under the microscope, you’ll see the porosity is about 100 uM. Compared to the virus is 0.039uM.

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Elaine Duval May 1, 2020 at 2:36 pm

Amen. Vermont is ready to open for business! Thank you for a truly common sense article.

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Dorothy Bolduc May 1, 2020 at 9:24 pm

Gov. Scott has repeatedly said he was shutting down the State of Vermont to protect the Hospitals. He did not want the hospitals to be overburdened and he wanted to “flatten the curve. He has been successful. I think closing the schools did prevent the rapid spread of the new virus. I think a lot of credit must be given to the people of Vermont for co-operating with the Gov. There has been a lot of hardship caused by the shutdown. Now the hospitals are suffering like the rest of us because of the shutdown.. They are not overburdened by the virus They are suffering from loss of business just like all the other businesses in Vermont. The hospitals were having financial problems before this virus. I know we need our hospitals but I am wondering why Gov. Scott feels they are more essential all other businesses. I hate calling some people essential All Vermonters are essential I trust Vermonters to have enough common sense to self isolate if the pandemic resurges.

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