Ending the Beginning

The rate of increase of new infections, and rate of increase of deaths, finally seems to be declining

By Dave Skinner

As I write this, there’s good news about COVID-19. But before I get to that, I’d like to welcome those “refugees” to Montana who “escaped” from New York or other trouble spots. We understand you did so for perfectly rational, if selfish, reasons. If one is perhaps exposed, perhaps infected, shedding virus and/or sick – where’s the last best place to be? New York, where the health system is near overload? Or our nice, shiny Kalispell Regional and North Valley hospitals, or someplace else where hospital line staff are being laid off because all elective surgery has been postponed?

So, to our special visitors, welcome, with a caveat. We’re OK if you bring and leave some money behind – but nothing else.

Now for the good news. We’re not beginning the end, nor ending the beginning of what will be a months-long wrestling match, with possible “waves” lasting as long as the search for a vaccine – or “herd immunity.”

But, the rate of increase of new infections, and rate of increase of deaths, finally seems to be declining. Hopefully, real soon, we’ll see net daily diagnoses, and net deaths, decline as well. Even better, long-term national mortality models took a drop from 240,000 to about 60,000, an indicator that social distancing “works.” Yep, it does. More on distancing further down.

Then there are the antibody serum tests. Having those, in late May if not earlier, is critical. First, testing will give researchers a much better grip on COVID-19’s actual infection rates, true survival/mortality rates, prevalence/intensity of symptoms – fundamental epidemiological data nonexistent up to now.

Second, and probably more important, good antibody tests will soon present enough data to judge whether or not recovered (or asymptomatic) infected individuals then become A.) immune to further infection and B.) nontoxic to others. For example, it’s been announced that libertarian U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), who bunkered up after testing positive for COVID-19 in late March, has now tested negative and is volunteering with a local hospital, working with COVID-19 patients.

No matter your politics, you’ve got to give Rand Paul props for pitching in. If he stays healthy in the trenches, that will be good news, too.

But man, I’m craving a serum test, yesterday. I can’t remember my last flu, nor my last cold. I’m tough – but cringe at the possibility I could be a Typhoid Mary/COVID Dave to family and friends. Gosh, we need to know, because social distancing is eating our lunch.

The Flathead’s ghosted downtowns underscores a concern I’ve had for years. I’ve always been pretty hardcore about maximizing Montana’s economic diversity, versus our increasing dependence on industrialized tourism.

The problem with craft beers, four-star dining, guided “wilderness” trips is, they are paid for with money left over after we’ve supported our basic needs.

And not everyone in Flathead County is, or should be, “creative” or a “people person.” Many of us work better with things, and are happiest when we get to work on things that matter, things that people need.

Essential “things” always have a market, a prime example being good old toilet paper. There’s no COVID-19 recession at Cottonelle’s plants … and when the shortage finally becomes a surplus, hopefully the larger economy will be able to support laid-off Cottonelle workers making something else that matters.

But there’s something else scary going on, in retail. Kalispell has lost several long-term chain retailers recently. They were “generics,” but specialty retail is likely at risk now, too. Millions previously loyal to “local” are being forced to adapt by COVID-19, and many will permanently change at least part of their shopping habits. What if they change everything? What if the too-long listing of closed and cut-back businesses in last week’s Beacon isn’t temporary?

So, while Italy’s insane mortality rates show the horrible consequences of failing to implement social distancing timely and broadly enough, it is becoming clear that relaxing social distancing timely and broadly enough is almost as important. Waiting a year for a vaccine or “cure” isn’t really an option. Antibody tests, available soon, will help us begin the end of this nightmare.

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