HOWEY: This pandemic is provoking brutal circumstances, choices

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Brian Howey

INDIANAPOLIS — Hoosiers are facing their greatest physical and economic threat since the Great Depression and on the most crucial aspect of this crisis – the availability of coronavirus testing that would allow health and policy executives to learn of the extent of the spread and contact trace those in a cluster – we are flying blind.

At this writing, only 380 out of 6.85 million Hoosiers have been tested. While there have been 56 confirmed cases (including 19 in Indianapolis) and two deaths, Bill Joy, the computer scientist who co-founded Sun Microsystems, told New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, “The last few weeks were actually pretty unsurprising and predictable in how the pandemic spread. But we’ve now reached a point where all of our interlocking systems, each with their own feedback loops, are all shutting down in unpredictable ways. This will inevitably lead to some random and chaotic consequences, like health care workers not having child care.” Or the wild market gyrations on Wall Street.

Joy described the power of exponentials: “The virus is like a loan shark who charges 25% a day interest. We borrowed $1 (the first coronavirus to appear here). We then fiddled for 40 days. Now we owe $7,500. If we wait three more weeks to pay, we’ll owe almost $1 million.”

Dr. Kristina Box, Indiana’s health commissioner, said last Friday modeling showed that up to 60,000 Hoosiers may be carrying the highly contagious virus. If these unknowing carriers transmit it to 2.5 people, as pandemic models suggest, another 150,000 people can be exposed, and they become spreaders. “People ask me a lot of times, ‘How many negatives have you had?’ Well, unfortunately I don’t have that knowledge,” Dr. Box said.

Dr. Woody Myers, the presumptive Democratic gubernatorial nominee and past state health commissioner, said Wednesday that testing should be the “top priority” at this stage of the pandemic. “Without testing, we don’t know where the patients are, where the clusters are,” Myers said.

With testing just beginning to ramp up, with Eli Lilly & Company coming on board and launching a drive-through set up in Indianapolis, Dr. Box said on Thursday, "We’re testing more people. I expect those numbers to go up. The numbers in Marion County are concerning to me." She added that 80% of people with the virus may be asymptomatic or showing no signs, becoming what the journal Science calls “stealth” cases.

That’s why when Gov. Eric Holcomb announced the state’s first death on Monday, he ominously said, “This is the beginning. This is real.” By Thursday, he told reporters, “I’m awake all day and all night. I talk with Hoosiers border to border and this has rocked their lives. With millions of Hoosiers in the same boat, we have to look out for each other."

Since Monday, Holcomb has ordered all bars and restaurants closed; limited public gatherings to a maximum of 50 people; and activation of the National Guard to help with logistics and, if needed, establish MASH units. The NCAA’s March Madness has been cancelled, as have the ISHAA tournaments. On Thursday he said schools would be out until at least May 1. He added that he favors postponing the May 5 primary election and is in talks with Secretary of State Connie Lawson on the details.

And a tidal wave of unemployed Hoosiers is just beginning. Holcomb said a year ago there were 3,100 jobless filings. In the first three days of this week, there were 22,000 plus. This will dwarf the Great Recession of 2008-09.

If the Indianapolis 500 is cancelled (at this writing it’s still on for May, but like the Kentucky Derby likely to be postponed), that would be a devastating economic hit on the state. The Indiana Business Resource Center commissioned a study in 2000 that estimated the economic impact was $331 million. Adjusted for inflation in 2010, it was estimated to be $431.1 million. It would almost certainly crest the $500 million figure this year.

U.S. Treasury Sec. Steve Mnuchin warned Republican senators at their weekly Tuesday luncheon that unemployment could reach 20%, levels seen in places like Elkhart, Kokomo and Anderson during the 2008-09 Great Recession.

An internal report from the Department of Health and Human Services obtained by the New York Times concluded that the “pandemic will last 18 months or longer and could include multiple waves of illness.” A vaccine is at least a year away.

Without widespread testing, Indiana and the U.S. has been faced with literally shutting down the economy, as opposed to South Korea, which tested and isolated those infected without broader shutdown.

“For those of you who think we are over-reacting, I can assure you we are not," Holcomb said on Monday. “We’re trying to slow the curve so it doesn’t last as long. We have resources around the state to deal with a surge.”

David Lauter of the Los Angeles Times reported: “The coronavirus pandemic has confronted governments around the globe with the ultimate bad choice: Wreck your economy or lose millions of lives. While some initially hesitated, leaders and legislators in the United States and worldwide increasingly have decided they have to accept the severe economic pain.”

The columnist is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com. Find Howey on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.

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