Even Hospital Capacity Can’t Be State’s Primary Objective

Chris Powell


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Maybe it will turn out to be only a fluke, but amid the renewed panic about the virus epidemic there is some interesting detail in the monthly death statistics of the state Department of Public Health.

In the first three months of the epidemic — March, April, and May — there were 4,174 more deaths in Connecticut than in those months last year. Many if not most of these deaths were those of frail residents of nursing homes, which were unprepared for the epidemic.

But as precautions were imposed by the extraordinary orders of Governor Lamont — business closures, mask wearing, and such — and as medicine discovered better ways of treating the virus than shoving ventilators down people’s throats and praying, deaths throughout the state diminished sharply. While the epidemic continued to rage in the next three months — June, July, and August — total deaths in the state then were down 151 from deaths in those months a year earlier.

That’s where this year’s monthly death statistics end, totals for September and October not having been compiled yet.

Of course making anything of this data presumes a relatively constant population in the state from last year to this year. But not everyone in Connecticut is moving to Florida, which suffers the epidemic too, and many people have moved here from New York. The point of this data is that some people are always getting sick and some are always dying without necessarily being noticed and that the daily new virus cases and “virus-associated” deaths reported by the governor and trumpeted on television newscasts may not provide the most accurate impression of what’s going on.

New virus cases really don’t disclose much by themselves. As more people get tested, of course more will test positive. Indeed, the experts used to say that there were probably 10 undetected virus cases in the general population for every positive test. If that hypothesis remains correct and the virus is as deadly as its terrifying publicity implies, Connecticut would have seen hundreds of thousands more “virus-associated” deaths than the fewer than 5,000 reported as of this week.

In fact 98% of the people who test positive for the virus are not driven to a cemetery or even a hospital but simply sent home to recover as if they just had a bad cold or to see if they even get sick, since most have only mild symptoms or none at all. Further, tests produce many false positives or positives for virus loads that are too small ever to cause symptoms or infect others.

In this respect Connecticut may be grateful to Governor Lamont’s communications director, Max Reiss, who, having tested positive a week ago but having experienced no symptoms, prompted the governor, his other top assistants, and the state’s two U.S. senators to put themselves in quarantine and await their doom or reprieve. Their survival, generally expected, will be not only welcome but a useful lesson: The virus may be bad enough but it is not the plague.

Lamont is not panic-stricken as other governors are. He increasingly focuses on hospitalizations and deaths rather than mere cases — and hospitalizations and deaths constitute a daily measure, a serious case rate, that typically is less than half the daily “positivity” rate of virus tests that news organizations love to scare their audiences with.

The governor also seems far more sensitive than most officials to the catastrophe being inflicted on children by conversion of schools to “remote learning.” Unfortunately his leaving school openings to local option isn’t keeping school administrators and parents from panicking, and even administrators who aren’t panicking are running short of the staff needed to remain fully operational. A single virus case or positive test can send many staffers home for a week or more to wait it out in quarantine, as with the governor’s office.

But even preventing the crowding of hospitals cannot be government’s highest objective.

Most of all government must keep society functioning, and as is suggested by the worsening mayhem in the cities, the violent mental illness and domestic abuse, the food queues, the business failures, the destruction of the capital of families, the widening despair, and the political hatefulness, society is coming apart, even in Connecticut.

Life inevitably requires facing risk, sometimes less and sometimes more — like now.

Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer, a daily newspaper in Manchester, Connecticut, where he has worked since graduating from high school in 1967. He was managing editor of the newspaper from 1974 until 2018. He also is a member of the Board of Directors of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information and was its state legislative chairman from 2004-2010.