January 18, 2022

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The Statistical Case for Reopening Georgia Is Weak

(Bloomberg Opinion) — Just days after the Trump administration set out careful benchmarks for states to meet before reopening their economies, four governors announced plans that basically ignore them.

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp will allow many businesses to reopen on Friday. In South Carolina, some retailers and its beaches are already open. The governors of Tennessee and Ohio will begin phased restarts on May 1. Yet all of these states have seen Covid-19 case counts, day over day, jump within the past few days. The White House guidelines call for two weeks of sustained decline. 

South Carolina, Georgia and Ohio are in the bottom 10 states in terms of tests run per 100,000 residents — arguably violating a second White House benchmark that says, before reopening, states should be fully ready to test front-line health workers. States are also supposed to have broad coronavirus surveillance systems and track-and-trace programs in place. None of the four states has fully met this mark.

Georgia plans to allow gyms, bowling alleys and other businesses to open this Friday, April 24. Theaters and restaurants can follow three days later. (All will be required to institute distancing measures.) This shift will probably lead to a substantial increase in activity. On Monday, Kemp said his decision comes as new diagnoses in the state appear to be flattening. But Georgia looks as if it may be at a plateau only if you ignore the biggest-ever daily jump in new cases statewide, reported on April 17. The state will be relaxing restrictions within a week of what still isn’t confirmed to be a peak of new infections.

There are good reasons that the White House benchmarks call for a sustained case decline: Covid-19 spreads rapidly and sometimes via carriers who have no symptoms. And because the coronavirus has a long incubation period, it can take time for even significant outbreaks to become large enough to discern, unless there is widespread testing. Georgia seems determined to ignore this reality.

South Carolina’s already commenced reopening looks no better. The state is a few weeks removed from its highest reported increase in Covid-19 cases. However, the steepest jump in its daily count came just the other day, on Saturday. And the state hasn’t reported more than 2,600 tests in a day since April 9. Governor Henry McMaster says he hopes his plan will help South Carolina “recover more quickly than any other state in the country.” What he risks is a second outbreak or a worsening, uncontained epidemic.

Tennessee, in contrast, can claim to have reached something that looks like a plateau, based on its positive test data. Yet even with a per-capita testing rate that is the 16th highest in the U.S., Tennessee has not seen a sustained decline. And Governor Bill Lee’s plan to allow the opening of the “vast majority” of businesses in all but five of the state’s 95 counties by May 1 will test any emerging stability. 

Among the four state leaders, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine stands out for his early action and pragmatism in dealing with Covid-19 — for which he has earned much praise. And the phased approach to reopening he now has in mind may prove to be appropriately cautious and flexible. Unfortunately, though, it comes just as the state’s case count is rising due to an outbreak in a prison. While this may be an isolated incident, it demonstrates how fast, in this pandemic, a seemingly stable situation can deteriorate.

All 50 states are bound to find reopening difficult no matter how carefully they follow public health guidelines. Four states are deliberately choosing to lower their odds of success. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Max Nisen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering biotech, pharma and health care. He previously wrote about management and corporate strategy for Quartz and Business Insider.

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