Listen to the health and science experts

Economic reopening is a delicate balance of satisfying competing interests. It’s not a matter if we should reopen but how and when. The economy is in shambles. People and businesses are hurting and protracted shutdown is unfeasible. Our country is determined to reopen.

Federal guidelines, now largely ignored, outline a staged approach for relaxing state shutdowns given the attainment of certain criteria. These include a 14-day decrease in COVID-19 activity, hospital upsurge capacity, and adequate testing and contact tracing. Unfortunately, our nation as a whole reopened too early with some states having rising coronavirus cases and no states meeting all criteria. States lost their mitigation resolve, bending to political and economic pressures.

Gov. Eric Holcomb boldly issued lockdown orders and now has boldly delivered a staged-reopening plan. He’s in a tough, risky position and must thread the needle rescuing the economy, satisfying conservative Hoosier ideology, respecting personal liberties and preserving public health.

Although Indiana now has decreasing daily COVID-19 hospitalizations, the most important coronavirus activity measure, I fear his thoughtfully-designed plan was initiated too early without fully attaining the federal criteria. It also progresses too rapidly. Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett was prudent in moving more slowly.

Indiana’s plan lacks a most critically-effective element: mandatory mask-wearing in public. Reopening after a more dramatic decrease in disease activity would have greatly facilitated case tracing. With 400 to 500 new cases daily, really effective case tracing will be difficult. Indiana’s testing should be multiple-times greater than the state’s goal.

Full reopening by Saturday is much too ambitious and progressive as stage advancements push against the three- to four-week lag time for each stage’s downstream effects.

I am particularly concerned with the allowance of large social and cultural gatherings and unrestricted religious assembly rules. As Dr. Anthony Fauci warns, if we move too quickly, we risk exponentially increasing coronavirus cases and deaths and even greater financial losses. With 97.2% of Hoosiers still coronavirus susceptible, many lives can be saved until a vaccine is developed.

Although increased deaths are inevitable with any reopening, the University of Washington predicts a 154% mortality increase for Indiana by early August. Holcomb has been silent on acceptable case and mortality increases. Acceptable increases may well be measured by the limits of ICU and ventilator capacity. A tragic, but stark reality.

The federal response has been chaotic, insufficient and delayed. That delay prevented controlling the pandemic early through individual containment necessitating mass mitigation and costing tens of thousands of lives. President Donald Trump continues his self-serving shell game of disinformation, creating his own reality. Denial, projection, distraction.

Nothing has more exposed Trump’s lack of leadership and empathy, and his ignorance, self-absorption and narcissism than this little virus.

His administration fails in leading a unified national pandemic strategy. Trump has diminished Dr. Fauci’s public visibility and has either removed or disregarded other scientific experts. One advisor, Dr. Debrah Birx, sounds more like a politician than a physician-scientist. The CDC is “muzzled” and its recommendations marginalized. Politics over science.

It will be difficult to lockdown again after reopening; people should proceed guardedly. Those at-risk must not assume reopening applies equally to them. Remember that children, although generally less affected, serve as vectors to adults. Wear masks and social distance. The future depends on individuals maintaining responsible mitigation efforts.

With luck, a temporary natural moderation of coronavirus will occur. Within a month, we will know the effects of reopening. Meanwhile, don’t listen to the man behind the curtain. Listen to Dr. Fauci.

Richard Feldman is a family physician, author, lecturer and former Indiana State Department of Health commissioner for Gov. Frank O’Bannon.Send comments to [email protected].