Plan Now for COVID-19 De-Mobilization

by James A. Bacon

Everyone wants to put people back to work as soon as the COVID-19 virus recedes, whether that’s month or two or three from now. In video discussion above with Dr. Alan Dow, Richmond creativity consultant Scott Wayne (at right) argues that we need to begin thinking now about how to do that. The process could be trickier than we realize.

Essentially, the question is this: Do we let some people re-enter the workforce earlier than others?

It’s fine to let young, healthy people back in the workplace, but how about older workers or those who have medical conditions that might put them at risk? Would delaying the return of older workers constitute a form of age discrimination? What obligation do employees have to disclose private health information about medical conditions that put them at greater risk? Employers must balance competing priorities of public health vs. individual rights.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, John H. Cochrane discusses the same issues. “Governors must … use this time to work with businesses on a plan for reopening the economy in a way that mitigates health risks.”

Some excerpts from Cochrane’s column:

A blanket lockdown can’t go on. Keeping every business closed and every workers at home until a vaccine is available won’t work. Replacing the private economy with borrowed federal money for months on end won’t work. …

Safety measures … need to be more tailored than a total shutdown of “nonessential” companies. Business were doing a good job already: announcing sanitation, social distancing and other protocols to keep operations safe and reassure customers. …

State and local government need to figure out a satisfactory combination of personal distance, self-isolation, frequent testing, stricter rules for those who who must interact with customers, cleaning protocols and so on. Each industry will likely be different. ….

All of which leads up to this point, addressed by Wayne and Dow in the video:

Government officials need to work with a scalpel, not a sledgehammer. Isolate old people and those with pre-existing health conditions, who are much more likely to end up needing emergency care, while letting the young and healthy get back to work, carefully.

It would be helpful if someone in the Northam administration, or perhaps the Attorney General’s office, began exploring the implications under state and federal law of allowing the young and health to return to work earlier than older and medically compromised workers.

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7 responses to “Plan Now for COVID-19 De-Mobilization”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    interesting chart:

    Hospitalizations, ICU and deaths from the virus by age range in the US.
    Image: US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

  2. This is simply wrong-headed, Jim — all the best medical advice is, this is no time to relax any of the “distancing” restrictions particularly in any indoor activity. The quicker spike in cases is going to overwhelm the health care system and that is going to kill more people, period. I have a little more sympathy for maintaining essential services and goods distribution centers and work environments that are not enclosed — agriculture, construction — but then, remember: the reason New Orleans is third after NYC and Seattle in current infections is because of Mardi Gras, a largely outdoor party!

    1. Acbar, what is your basis for thinking that I have called for relaxing distancing restrictions at this time?

      First sentence: “Everyone wants to put people back to work as soon as the COVID-19 virus recedes, whether that’s month or two or three from now. ”

      Conclusion: “It would be helpful if someone in the Northam administration, or perhaps the Attorney General’s office, began exploring the implications under state and federal law of allowing the young and health to return to work earlier than older and medically compromised workers.”

      The point is to look ahead and prepare for the de-mobilization when the situation improves.

  3. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    I don’t know whether this makes good sense or not. I’m not posting because I’m advocating the position taken therein. But the refusal of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune (another extremely left-wing media company) to take it as a paid advertisement made me want to post it.

    This is the column that former UnitedHealthGroup general counsel Kevin Roche has sought to place in the Star Tribune under the heading STOP THE ECONOMIC SUICIDE. The Star Tribune has refused so far to accept the ad or to offer a comprehensible explanation. Kevin writes:

    A variety of extreme measures completely upending our economy and the lives of every American, including threatening job loss to tens of millions, mostly low-income workers, have been taken in response to the coronavirus. These measures have been taken in light of a feared worst-case effect of the virus and with no balancing of the harms the measures are themselves causing. It is time to have a real discussion about what the appropriate measures should be.

    First, we need to be more realistic about the actual threat of this virus. We all have coronaviruses present in our daily lives, so they are not some new threat. While this coronavirus appears more virulent, particularly to the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions, it is clearly a minimal threat to the vast majority of the population.

    The best evidence of the threat the virus poses is found by the unintended experiment of the Diamond Princess cruise ship. There were over 3700 passengers and crew on the vessel. Everyone of them undoubtedly had constant, heavy exposure to the virus in close quarters. Using gold standard testing, less than 20% of the 3711 people were positive, meaning they were actually infected. And out of those positive tests, a little over half were actually symptomatic. 8 people died, or about 2% of those with symptoms or .2% of percent of the vessel population. The cruise ship population skewed older than a general population and was therefore more susceptible and obviously had far more contact with the virus than the general population will.

    These are very encouraging numbers when you consider the extensive exposure to the virus on the ship, which is completely unlike all our daily living situations. In the real world, this means a very large percent of people won’t become infected even if exposed to the virus, of those exposed, well under half will have any symptoms, a very small percent will become seriously ill and the fatality rate of those infected will be down in the one-half percent range or less. This is the most realistic picture we have of the actual effect of the virus. You cannot trust other per cents or numbers you see because, unlike the cruise ship, we have not tested the entire population, but logic tells us that the numbers will be smaller in the real world. The average person has basically a zero chance of having a serious illness from the virus, even if they were in heavy contact with it.

    So the threat is actually low, consistent with a serious flu year. Yet we are rushing into relatively severe reactions with the goal of virus suppression, reactions that are wreaking economic havoc. You should all go to the CDC website and look at the timeline for swine flu in 2009-2010, look at the details of the reaction to that epidemic. Even though it caused widespread illness and deaths in children, unlike coronavirus, there was no substantial number of school closures, no shutdown of the economy, no declaration of any national emergency until ten months after the epidemic began, and then only for limited purposes.

    And what are the harms from the actions we are taking? Unlike the uncertainty around the exact toll of the coronavirus, we know for a certainty what the economic and health toll of the economic lockdown will be. Already, whole sectors of the economy have shut down, leading to loss of tens of millions of dollars, homelessness, lack of food, lack of access to health care. We are talking about a recession far more severe than the great recession we endured in 2008 and 2009. Even an average recession has been shown to lead to increased suicides and excess deaths from lack of health care and stress-induced exacerbations of illness. And low-income citizens are disproportionately affected.

    The real tragedy is that all these efforts to completely suppress the virus are likely futile. Like the influenza virus, coronaviruses, including this variant, are here to stay. While it makes sense to attempt to limit the surge in demand on the health system, continued suppression efforts only spread the economic pain out further and further, without creating any meaningful overall decline in the eventual total number of illnesses and deaths. A far more reasonable strategy, and one which was used with swine flu, would be to mitigate the effects, protect the most vulnerable but not intentionally inflict massive economic damage that has health and other effects far worse than the virus itself, and that weakens the ability of society and government to respond.

    We need to immediately embark on a different course, before the damage we inflict on ourselves is beyond repair. Open the schools. Let bars and restaurants open. Encourage stores to be open. Encourage businesses to keep employees and get them back to work. Continue to mandate careful hygiene. Continue testing and enforce quarantine of the infected. Close senior residences to visitors, keep their staff infection free, and take other steps to protect vulnerable populations. And people who have reason to fear becoming infected or are just afraid to go out in public can stay home, that should be their choice. But locking down the economy is too severe a harm to be justified.

    So we should call on Governor Walz, our legislators and other political leaders, to consider that they are only delaying, that is right, not preventing, only delaying, the loss of a few lives, while promulgating measures that likely will lead to, indeed have already led to, enormous job losses and financial ruin, creating widespread anxiety and emotional distress. Our leaders need to do what they are supposed to do—consider what is THE GREATEST GOOD FOR THE GREATEST NUMBER of people, or put another way, DO THE LEAST HARM. Don’t be afraid of being accused of not taking extreme actions to save lives from the virus, if you know that the actions that have been taken are wreaking far more havoc on the citizenry.

    And all of us need to force a real discussion and debate on what the appropriate actions should be. No one person, for any extended period of time, should have the right to unilaterally impose such severe measures? The Governor should immediately call the legislature into session; there should be hearings in which those whose lives are being so substantially affected can testify, and the legislators should make their decisions based on what their constituents ask them to do and what they know does meet the criteria of the greatest good for the greatest number. So call and write the Governor, call and write your legislators and insist that your voice be heard. And get accurate information about what the risks from the virus really are and demand that you hear accurate information about the consequences of the economic lockdown.

    For those who are suffering from the consequences of the economic lockdown, share your story at #thecureisworsethanthedisease so people know the real-life tragedies that are occurring to millions of households that live paycheck-to-paycheck. And if you want to get more information and help encourage this debate, go to

    Thank you all.
    Kevin Roche’s personal site is The Healthy Skeptic.

    JUST POSTED at number 3 below.

    “UPDATE: Kevin advises that the Star Tribune accepted his ad this morning (“not sure why”).”

    Here’s the back and forth.

  4. You mention young people going back to work because they are themselves not as vulnerable. Your conclusion reiterates that theme. They are carriers, Jim! Even if not themselves at as much risk, they cannot circulate in contact with the vulnerable population or that will accelerate the spread of this disease and contribute to overwhelming the health system. Think Italy! Only with widespread, rapid testing, we can allow those who are KNOWN to have had the disease to go back to work after full recovery. Only after the health care crisis has abated and those with active cases are largely identified and isolated, we can allow others who never contracted the disease to take the risk of working in close contact with others. This risk is a risk to all of us, not just to them. Yes, it may be two or three months. Or longer.

    IMHO Governor Northam is too timid, too opaque, too missing-in-action for a leader, and handling this overall very poorly especially considering he’s a medical professional himself. And don’t get me started on the President’s self-serving, counterproductive, malicious pronouncements promoting “back in church by Easter.” If you must listen only to a Republican, try Gov. DeWine.

  5. Aside from the workplace, community activities and organizations are going to be impacted depending on how we ramp back up, when the time comes. If it is 65-and under only can come out and play, that will put a damper on lots of stuff. I am a little worried this crisis may take a toll on some organizations, just like the economic situation may take a toll on some businesses.

  6. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    The key issue is not people going back to work, it is getting children back in school. Looking at my children and their spouses, three are able to work from home (the medical person is still going to her clinic some) and the contractor intends to keep working as long as people give his company work. His hangup now is government building inspectors hunkered down and refusing to go to job sites…

    In any case, their main challenge is young children, 1st grade and preschool, who are home and in need of actual structured activities, not just play and TV….So when can the kids go back to school?

    On the risk side, other than the very old, the issue is really underlying conditions. A 30 year old with asthma or who smokes heavily (pot included) is far more at risk than a healthy 65 year old. This is something else we can chalk up to killer tobacco.

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