COVID-19 is here in Florida, and it is spreading. So we’re finally taking action, shutting things down and practicing social distancing to try to limit the spread. Now some are calling for more drastic measures like a shelter-in-place order, but others are questioning if that is necessary and are worried about the economic costs. Here’s the thing: the economic costs of delaying such an order are likely to be much higher than waiting. The time for drastic preventive measures is now (actually yesterday). If the governor won’t issue the order, local leaders should.
The first thing to understand is that we’re already facing critical shortages of protective equipment, especially for health-care workers and tests. The slow start to testing means that there are more cases in our community than we are aware of. Even with limited testing, we can see the statewide case numbers growing on a similar path to other areas that are now experiencing full-on crises. There is no longer a question of if our communities will be hit, it is a question of when and for how long.
Consider a doctor who treats someone in the ER with respiratory symptoms. The patient might have COVID-19, so the doctor orders a test. If the symptoms are bad, the test will likely be approved, but even then it can take 5 days or more to get the results. So the doctor keeps working. Was she exposed to the virus? It’s possible, but there aren’t enough tests to know and even if there were the delay is too long. The doctor can’t wait 5 days to find out. The Health Department in New York, for instance, has instructed health-care workers to keep working even if they were exposed to the virus so long as the workers themselves do not have symptoms.
These are dangerous standards; we’re asking medical professionals to explicitly not follow the recommendations that everyone else should follow of self-isolation if they have been exposed to the virus. Normally, these workers would use protective equipment to minimize their risks in dealing with highly contagious patients. But there are shortages of this equipment everywhere, so everyone from lab techs to nurses to physicians is breaking rules and violating standards by re-using equipment and putting themselves at greater risk.
Put together, we have a situation where those who must interact directly with the virus lack the equipment to protect themselves and the tests to know if they become infected. What happens if they catch the virus but don’t know it? They will be spreading it as well in their homes and grocery stores, furthering the infiltration throughout the community.
Let’s tie this back to the broader economy and shelter-in-place. We currently have a situation where COVID-19 is spreading and the hospitals treating it are lacking the resources to do their jobs without spreading it further. Every additional infection that occurs today increases the burden on our hospitals two to four weeks from now. If our hospitals get overwhelmed, their shortages go beyond masks to ventilators, which means patients die because too many people become sick at the same time. So we must minimize the number of cases now, which means shelter in place, and our political leaders must focus on getting more protective equipment and tests as soon as possible.
Yes, more drastic distancing measures now will hurt the economy today. But they will be necessary later, and for longer, if we wait. We’re spreading infections now that we are unaware of, and we will be overwhelmed as some of those cases become severe. Drastic measures will be obvious then, but the damage will already be worse because the spread will have already been greater. Facing a wider spread, we’ll be forced to maintain distancing for longer and fight a bigger fight just to get things under control.
The only way to get the economy back on track is to get the virus contained, which means we have to have testing and protective equipment. Cities in China are going back to work after a couple of months, but everyone is wearing masks and anyone who may be sick is tested. For now, we need to shut down non-essential businesses and do everything we can to get more protective equipment and tests.
Alan Green is associate professor of economics and chair of the economics department at Stetson University.