Northam Last in COVID Crisis Management? Based on What Evidence?

by James A. Bacon

This morning I was intending to compose a post critical of Governor Ralph Northam’s approach to the COVID-19 crisis. But then I read this article in the Washington Post: “Grading the region’s coronavirus response: Hogan 1st, Northam last, and Bowser in the middle.” Much against my nature, I feel compelled to defend the governor.

It is the unstated thesis of WaPo columnist Robert McCarthy that an activist approach to combating the COVID-19 virus is called for. He finds Maryland Governor Larry Hogan (R) the most praise-worthy, followed by Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), for being quick and aggressive in ordering measures to compel social distancing.

“One might assume that a governor who spent most of his career as a physician would be among the first to press for quick, decisive action to combat a deadly, fast-spreading infectious disease,” McCartney writes. Yet “Northam was the last of the three to close the state’s schools, order a state of emergency and seek activation of the National Guard. He still hasn’t joined Maryland and the District to order a full shutdown of on-site eating and drinking in restaurants and bars.”

And to that, I say, good for Northam.

I do fault him for several things. It appears that he has been slow to address developing shortages of hospital beds, shortages of protective gear for medical workers, and the fiscal implications of the inevitable  economic contraction. But I believe that his relatively restrained curtailment of business has been appropriate. As I explained in a previous post, activist epidemic-control measures have huge costs. The benefit of slowing the spread of the coronavirus must be balanced against the costs to the economy and jobs.

First, let us note that the virus has been slower to spread in Virginia than in Maryland and D.C. (using the latest data published on the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center):

Washington, D.C.
Population: 630,000
COVID-19 cases: 120
One case per 5,250 population

Population: 6.0 million
COVID-19 cases: 249
One case per 24,000 population

Population: 8.6 million
COVID-19 cases: 221
One case per 38,900 population

Hogan and Bowser have been far more aggressive than Northam, but… the disease has spread more rapidly in Maryland and D.C., than in Virginia. Is it possible that draconian, job-killing measures really aren’t bending the curve?

Perhaps, Northam critics might say, we should be comparing Maryland and D.C. to Northern Virginia, which is part of the Washington metropolitan area. After all, there’s a lot of movement back and forth between NoVa, D.C., and Maryland.

According to Virginia Department of Health data, as of yesterday, 95 of Virginia’s confirmed COVID-19 cases originated in Northern Virginia (Alexandria 5, Arlington 26, Fairfax 31, Loudoun 15, and Prince William 18). The population of those five jurisdictions (not including the smaller independent cities) is about 2.5 million. That translates into one coronavirus case per 26,300 population — lower than Maryland!

Washington Post writers have a mystical faith in the efficacy of activist government. The more aggressive and intrusive, the better. Northam has chosen a more cautious approach than his metro Washington peers. There is no discernible evidence — certainly none that the WaPo has presented — that his approach has proven any less efficacious in slowing the spread of the disease.

Meanwhile, I’m willing to bet — time will tell — that the lighter hand of government will prove less debilitating to the economy in Virginia than in Maryland and D.C.

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16 responses to “Northam Last in COVID Crisis Management? Based on What Evidence?”

  1. Jim Loving Avatar
    Jim Loving

    In addition to the Johns Hopkins site, here is another one, from “RealClearPolitics” (I checked their data, it remains close to Hopkins, in fact they list the same sources as Hopkins does).

    What’s different about the RCP site is the way they present it, including categories of # deaths/1M population and Confirmed cases fatality rate (as a %).

    It would be nice to have this of course by state and county.

    1. Raise you hand if you believe the numbers being reported by India.

  2. While I intensely dislike Ralph Northam (to put it politely), to date I have been mostly satisfied with his response to the covid-19 virus. So far, I think he has done a reasonably good job of walking a perilous tightrope – managing to avoid falling into a pit of panic, while also not getting trapped in a tub of torpidity.

    I am loathe to criticize him too much on the issue because he, like the president, is in an impossible situation. No matter what he does, chooses not to do or fails to do, he is in a no-win situation – somebody is going to be harmed, angry or dissatisfied.

    1. sbostian Avatar

      It is interesting to see that even here, Ralph Northam is being criticized for not being Fascist enough. This might be a good point to resurrect a quote from William Pitt the Younger (a 19th Century British Prime Minister):

      “Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.”

      Obviously, the Commonwealth has renounced its connection to Patrick Henry. Anyone defending constitutional liberty here is denounced as either a dangerous libertarian lunatic or subjected to the “99% of scientists and politicians agree” mantra. By the way does anybody have scientific, empirical data to support the 99% meme? Think a little about that “creed of slaves” phrase.

    2. After Mr. Northam’s actions yesterday afternoon I am reevaluating my position on how good a balancing job he has done dealing with the pandemic.

      It appears he has lost his balance on the tightrope and fallen in to a small to medium-sized pool of panic.

  3. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    I think it is abundantly clear that Hogan and Bowser are more pro-active than Northam.

  4. johnrandolphofroanoke Avatar

    Ralph is going to be criticized no matter what he does. He is taking a big gamble. Hope he is lucky. I think Andy should let Barney have his one bullet now.

  5. Chap Petersen’s Interesting Take That Parts With Most Dems

    Friends, Virginians, Citizens of Fairfax:

    During my college years, I lacked the intelligence to study medicine. But I loved history, and I apply that even today as a State Senator.

    Never has that been more critical than the past three weeks as Virginia has wrestled with its most serious pandemic in 100 years.

    Pandemics have shaped human history. The “Black Death” in the 1300’s devastated the population in Old World Europe. Historians estimate that one-third of the population died as a result of the plague. The decimation set back European civilization for hundreds of years, until the Renaissance and Reformation created the modern Western world.

    The agrarian nature of the early United States militated against pandemics. That changed during World War I when the “doughboy” Army put millions of young men from diverse backgrounds into military camps. At some point in 1918, an influenza epidemic spread through these young soldiers and eventually into the civilian population. In the context of a World War, it crossed into Europe (or perhaps had started there) and eventually reached areas in India and Africa, borne likely by trade or returning Allied soldiers.

    During the course of the “Spanish flu” epidemic (so named because that nation first publicized it), nearly twenty million people died globally, including one million in the U.S. It was a transformative virus and led to a loss of life which was comparable to WWI itself.

    But here’s the remarkable thing …

    In histories from the time period, few talked about the epidemic. The media covered it only on a local basis. There were no national emergency declarations. Indeed, the nation was wholly focused on fighting (and winning) a war against Imperial Germany. The fact that thousands died in each state was treated largely as a fact of life. People lived, people died. It wasn’t until the 1990’s that serious scholarship actually investigated the causes and eventual cure for the 1918 influenza pandemic.

    Fast forward 100 years and we live in a world of modern medicine and social media. There are hourly updates as more people are tested for COVID-19 and the number of afflicted grows with each passing day (and in line with greater testing). The phrase “flattening the curve” has become the watch word for every public official.

    The wall-to-wall coverage has led to some outsize effects: in Virginia, we have approx. 150 diagnosed cases to date, with two-dozen currently hospitalized. Undoubtedly that number will grow as more testing occurs. Meanwhile, the decision (led by the Federal government) to effectively shut down the retail service industry has led to devastating consequences. In Virginia, we had 30,000 people file for unemployment benefits this week — the most in our history. We cannot sustain that job loss. Period.

    There are necessary steps needed to react to and create boundaries around this virus. In my opinion, the most critical is to immediately increase access to COVID-19 TESTING so we know who has this virus and can place appropriate borders around vulnerable persons and communities. This will also allow us to track the actual spread of the virus, rather than simply reporting higher “case numbers” which is driven by increased testing. Yesterday, I asked the Governor to make this our #1 priority.

    On the flip side, the single-minded call of some to “shut down” business indefinitely puts a death sentence on our economy and ourselves. Without work, there is no commerce. Without commerce, you cannot obtain food, medicine or shelter. If you produce nothing, you will eventually have nothing to consume.

    Currently, we are projecting 9% unemployment by 3Q 2020. Should we make it 20% in order to avoid reaching 1,000 reported COVID cases? Should we close our public schools indefinitely, like we did during Massive Resistance in the 1950’s? These are serious questions.

    We must find a sober balance between public safety and public economy. It may require re-imagining certain industries, at least temporarily. But we make no mistake about it — we must have the ability to earn our bread. No epidemic can be allowed to take that away.

    Not a sermon, just a thought. I welcome (as always) your suggestions and comments.

    We’ll get through this together.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Chap Peterson is a wise fellow, a whole lot smarter than he lets on, a fine family trait as I recall.

  6. djrippert Avatar

    New York has run 78,289 COVID-19 tests and is testing more than 16,000 people a day now.

    As of yesterday Virginia has run 3,337 tests with only 547 new tests run yesterday.

    Let those statistics sink in.

    Why has Virginia run so few tests? Is it because clean living Virginians are not showing up at their doctors’ offices feeling ill? In other words, there is nobody who needs testing other than the 500 or so per day who get tested. Or, is it because we lack the capacity to test those who should, under reasonably broad guidelines, get tested?

    New York state is 2.3X more populous than Virginia. On a per-capita basis Virginia would need to test just under 7,000 per day to be on a par with New York’s testing regime. Instead we are testing about 500 per day – 7.1% of the per capita testing rate in New York.

    Until Northam gets very, very clear on why we’re testing so few people per day I don’t know how you could possibly decide whether we are following too strict or too relaxed an approach.

  7. djrippert Avatar

    Montgomery County, MD lies just over the river from Fairfax County, VA. Montgomery has a population of 1,052,567. Fairfax has a population of 1,150,795.

    Montgomery County has 93 confirmed cases of COVID-19.
    Fairfax County has 43 confirmed cases of COVID-19.

    I guess God just likes Virginians more than Marylanders.

    1. Of course he does, we are better drivers.

      1. djrippert Avatar

        Now that is God’s own truth. Where do Marylanders learn how to drive – from the Keystone Cops School of Vehicular Operation?

        1. They bring in driving instructors that were fired in New Jersey.

  8. djrippert Avatar

    My complaint about Northam is his opacity. He needs to present very detailed information about testing in Virginia. Absent that information people cannot make informed decision as to whether they should go out to eat, go out to shop, etc. For example, if I knew that the majority of people who feel badly and want to get tested don’t get tested in Virginia I’d stay home. If however, I heard that everybody who had a doctor’s request for testing in Virginia got tested I’d be a lot more comfortable going out.

    You can try to use proxies like hospitalizations and/or deaths but the amount of time a victim is asymptomatic makes those statistics akin to driving while looking through the rear view mirror.

    Until we conduct 50,000 tests or so we just don’t know. Hogan doesn’t know, Bowser doesn’t know, Northam doesn’t know and you and I don’t know. Given that – isn’t an ounce of prevention still worth a pound of cure?

    1. Opacity is being kind. He just committed the cardinal sin for me, stating that the spread continues and that the death rate is increasing, without any evidence. Clearly the “spread continues” but is that as a result of transmission or increased testing, I would suggest the latter. As to the death rate, I may not be a mathematician but I believe the statistics actually show a decline in the “death rate”. How in the Hell did we ever elect Forrest Gump to the Governor’s Office.

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