Editorial: Conversations we should be having about the pandemic

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

The pandemic is working on dominating every part of our lives, yet somehow the country has still managed to avoid several conversations we should be having about it. Here are a few:

• The role of federalism. We may never have this one on a great scale because it sounds too much like government class. But for those who were able to stay awake in government class, we really ought to debate it because a lack of federalism has been America’s greatest failure in this pandemic. Federalism was created for pandemics. Think of it this way. There is a reason America chose to have one army for the entire country instead of 50 separate armies controlled by the states. The latter system would have resulted in all of us speaking German or Japanese or Russian or maybe even English. (The British kind, not our goodly American kind.) It would take too much time to get 50 separate armies organized to execute a coordinated battle plan to win a war. Yet, President Donald Trump says COVID-19 is a war, but he’s chosen to fight it with 50 separate armies. His rejection of federalism in this key moment will go down as one of the greatest failures in the history of the American presidency.

• What is the most important statistic? We talk about total cases all the time. That is easy to understand but a dumb one to follow. That number never goes down. The average number of new cases per day is better, but only marginally so. The president is right when he says the number of cases per day will go up as the number of tests administered rises. The percentage of tests that are coming back positive is an even better statistic. It is the one that has proven that our spike in cases currently is about much more than an increase in testing. But it also isn’t a great statistic because, again, the president is correct when he asks whether all cases are created equal. It is true that some cases are pretty mild. It is important to still find those cases so those patients don’t infect others, but otherwise those mild cases are not creating many problems for the country as a whole, so a spike in those types of cases perhaps should not be so concerning. The percentage of cases that end up resulting in hospitalization is much better. People getting sick enough that they are hospitalized and risk death is what we really are trying to avoid. That is what is worth shutting down broad swaths of the economy for. We need to settle on how much of that suffering is too much for a compassionate country, and then use that metric as our North Star.

• Are we planning or just reacting? Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly deserves a lot of credit. She is at least trying to fill the void in leadership created by President Trump. She’s trying to create a coordinated response for Kansas. That’s the correct approach. Republicans have been wrong in arguing for local control. However, that doesn’t mean she is coordinating well. The executive order she signed delaying the start of school until after Labor Day was lacking in any detail on what has to happen in order for us to feel fine in reopening schools after Labor Day. Does the average number of daily cases need to come down? If so, by how much? Same question for hospitalization rates. Kansans should stand with Kelly. She has our best interests at heart. But her approach to controlling the pandemic needs to become more sophisticated. Republicans are correct in that the virus has not impacted all areas of the state equally. Kansas leaders should have a map of the state’s hospital system. Each hospital should have a catchment area. The percentage of beds being filled by COVID-19 patients in each hospital should be tracked in real time. Health leaders should set a benchmark. When the percentage of beds reaches a certain point, that is our sign that the number of serious cases is becoming too prevalent. Every community in that hospital’s catchment area should then go on some level of lockdown to slow the disease’s progression. Those numbers should be reported publicly every day. If the public knows it is just five beds away from facing a lockdown, that type of information might cause people to positively change their behavior.

Heaven knows we need something that produces change. Let’s start with more honest conversations.

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