Opinion: Daily Journal

Numbers missing from lockdown debate

Photo courtesy of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Photo courtesy of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

As we all follow the news about North Carolina’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, it is important to remember that the most-tracked statistics offer at best a distorted and incomplete picture of the situation.

For example, those running counts you see of the number of confirmed cases — broken out by county, state, and country — aren’t an accurate picture of the extent of COVID-19 infections. The understatement is so vast, in fact, that much of the “news” generated by daily updates is uninformative.

To put it simply, most people infected by the virus never get sick at all or present only mild symptoms. Protocol doesn’t subject them to testing. Indeed, most infected people wouldn’t even bother to seek it.

So, how many North Carolinians truly are infected? Experts offer a wide range of multiples, based on past experience as well as a growing body of data from antibody tests in other places. As a rough gauge, I’ll use the range of multipliers offered to Gov. Roy Cooper over the past month by a team of private and university researchers.

As of Tuesday, May 5, North Carolina’s case count was about 12,400. At the low bound, then, the true number of infections would be about 62,000. A high-bound estimate would be 310,000. Let’s use the midpoint of the range and say that, as of May 5, some 186,000 North Carolinians had been infected, most without exhibiting any symptoms.

The count of confirmed cases, then, represents a small fraction of the total, and may only reflect changes in testing patterns. That’s why the Cooper administration has wisely downplayed it as an indicator. State officials are focusing instead on the share of COVID-19 tests that come back positive as well as surveillance of COVID-type symptoms among patients who show up at emergency rooms.

If 186,000 North Carolinians have already been infected, then the number of confirmed deaths — 460 as of this writing — would yield an infection-fatality rate of 0.25%, much lower than originally feared but still worse than the seasonal flu and its related complications (such as pneumonia). Beware of latching onto that figure too tightly, however. Deaths lag weeks behind infections. And we probably won’t have solid mortality figures for COVID-19 for many months, because such an analysis would require comparing reported deaths against historical patterns.

Let me offer you another application of the French economist Frederic Bastiat’s critical distinction between “what is seen and what is not seen” in analyzing government policy. We have reasonable estimates of how much the government is appropriating for combatting COVID-19 itself as well as to ameliorate the current economic devastation.

But the devastation itself is only now coming into view, however indistinctly. It looks as though a million North Carolina workers have filed unemployment-insurance claims, or about a fifth of the state’s entire labor force. Because of massive backlogs, many have yet to receive a single dollar in UI benefits. Even those numbers understate the crisis, because some jobless North Carolinians haven’t filed claims and some still employed are receiving less income now than they were before.

We need to think more broadly. According to University of Chicago professor Casey Mulligan, a rough estimate of the cost of the current lockdowns nationwide is about $20 billion a day in lost economic production. On a proportional basis, that would translate to $540 million per day in North Carolina.

Perhaps that’s an overstatement, because some deferred goods and services will be produced during a V-shaped recovery later this year. Or perhaps it’s an understatement, because Mulligan didn’t try to place a value on potential long-term losses in human and social capital.

I think reopening North Carolina’s battered economy is imperative. Still, I recognize that there is no painless way out of this crisis. Our leaders confront immensely challenging decisions armed with very rough calculations of the relevant costs and risks. They should receive our thanks for their efforts, and our prayers. But they should neither request nor receive our uncritical deference.

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.