Director, Commonwealth Policy Center

When the Cure Is Worse than the Disease

by Richard Nelson

Back in February, caution was in order, as we knew little about the tiny COVID-19 virus whose threat loomed largely. What else could we do but follow our leaders and public health experts? After four months of an impact compared to a bad flu season, many wonder why the extreme shutdown occurred. Sen. Rand Paul challenged Dr. Anthony Fauci in a Senate hearing on May 12 and said, “The history of this, when we look back, will be of wrong prediction, after wrong prediction, after wrong prediction.

The high death toll in Kentucky hasn’t materialized. As of July 13, 629 deaths have been attributed to COVID-19. This is on track to outpace Kentucky’s 2018 Influenza/Pneumonia season, which claimed 969 lives. As of late May, 55 percent of COVID-19 deaths occurred in nursing homes. The vast majority of deaths have been those who are 60 and older, and many of them had prior underlying health issues.

By no means do I wish to discount or diminish any life. But what about the impact this extreme disruption has had on nearly 4.5 million Kentuckians? Consider a few more stats. Fifty percent of all COVID-19 cases are in five counties. Sixty-six counties have 50 or fewer cases. Robertson County didn’t even have a single documented COVID-19 case until June 29th. It’s clear that citizens in most counties have had their lives upended, and many arbitrary executive orders haven’t helped public confidence in the government.

After weeks of seeing the masses congregate at big-box stores mask-free, in several cases shoulder to shoulder in checkout lines, many began to wonder why churches couldn’t meet. Then on Good Friday, Gov. Beshear threatened that anyone attending in-person church services would have their license plate number recorded by Kentucky State Police and ordered to self-quarantine by local health departments. Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer prohibited drive-in church services on Easter Sunday. U.S. District Judge Justin Walker blocked the order and called Fischer’s decision “stunning,” and “beyond all reason, unconstitutional.”

Beshear’s executive order restricting interstate travel? Blocked. The order restricting racing, daycare, and orchards? Also blocked. Boone County Circuit Judge Richard A. Brueggemann said Beshear’s actions should have been targeted and proportional to the particular threat Kentucky is facing.

The far-reaching shutdown has taken a massive toll on Kentuckians who do not get mentioned during the governor’s daily briefings: the small business owner whose doors are shuttered while bills pile up, the recovering addict left without their support group, those struggling with mental health dealing with isolation, the fragile family unsure of child care arrangements and cramped workspaces. Isn’t the well-being of these citizens of equal value and equal consideration?

The economic disruption forced 900,000 Kentuckians to file for unemployment. Nearly 7000 of those who applied in March haven’t received their first check yet, leading thousands seeking help to line up outside the Capitol back in June.

How about our mental health and family life? There’s been a 25 percent increase in domestic violence reports in Louisville between February and March and a 20 percent increase in suicide hotline calls in Louisville at the end of March. Statewide opioid-related overdoses nearly doubled in May. For these Kentuckians, the shutdown has been catastrophic.

Yet not all states took the one-size-fits-all approach and shut down their economies through stay-at-home orders. Arkansas allowed its economy to remain open and suffered 11 deaths per 100,000. South Dakota and North Dakota did the same and suffered 12 deaths/100,000 respectively. Gov. Beshear’s unilateral shut down left us with 15 deaths/100,000. Nebraska stayed open and suffered the same as Kentucky, with 15 deaths/100,000.

Missing from the equation in best dealing with a pandemic are other leaders who could have played an influential role in helping to elevate safety while minimizing disruptive overreach. Instead of Gov. Beshear unilaterally determining what businesses are essential and which ones aren’t, why not let the owners determine for themselves what is best for their employees “based on their age, health, type of business, etc.” and whether they stayed open or closed? Why not let mayors and judge-executives review the data and determine what approaches to take for their community. Why not pursue a targeted approach to the most vulnerable in nursing homes instead of a blanket approach that inflicts unnecessary pain on the healthy?

Shelter-at-home orders were intended to slow the spread of COVID-19 and prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed. Not a single Kentucky hospital had to turn away patients. Instead, several have been laying off their employees since elective surgeries were deemed non-essential, including Jennie Stuart in Hopkinsville, which laid off 248 on April 8. It’s becoming clear that the blanket approach to slowing COVID-19 has been overkill for most of the Commonwealth, and for most Kentuckians, the cure has been far worse than the disease.