Everyone in the media was horrified last month when Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp announced he would begin reopening the state’s economy. An April 21 headline in The Week denounced Kemp’s reckless “experiment,” and on April 22, MSNBC bemoaned the Republican governor’s “dangerous gamble.” Dana Milbank of the Washington Post declared, “Public health experts fear coronavirus will burn through Georgia like nothing has since William Tecumseh Sherman.” The Atlantic’s Amanda Mull went so far as to call Kemp’s move an “experiment in human sacrifice.” Yet perhaps the most memorable media condemnation of Kemp was from Ron Fournier, former Washington bureau chief for the Associated Press, who proclaimed on Twitter, “Mark this day. Because two and three weeks from now, the Georgia death toll is blood on his hands. And as Georgians move around the country, they’ll spread more death and economic destruction.”
Well, everyone did mark the day and, after Fournier’s “two or three weeks” elapsed, they called attention to how badly wrong his prediction had been. “Dear Media, Governor Kemp Will Accept Your Apology Now,” was the headline on Stacey Lennox’s column at PJMedia, in which she pointed out that, contrary to what Kemp’s media critics seemed to assume, the governor “had worked closely with public health officials” in crafting his policy to reopen Georgia’s businesses. Fournier and other media fear-mongers have made such false assumptions many times during the course of this pandemic, but in contrast to Kemp, these journalists don’t risk anything by being wrong. They suffer no consequences for their baseless speculation and incendiary rhetoric. No one in the media has lost a job for libeling Kemp. He’s a Republican, after all, and libeling Republicans is obviously not a firing offense at MSNBC or the Washington Post. It’s their stock in trade.
It would be helpful if media “experts” like Ron Fournier demonstrated a capacity to learn from their errors. Why was it so easy for them to assume that Brian Kemp didn’t know what he was doing?
Beyond the mere partisan bias involved, however, the media’s fear-mongering has inflicted serious damage. Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics has examined how failed prophecies of COVID-19 doom tend to disappear down the memory hole. The doomsayers typically refuse to admit they were wrong, and “a failure to acknowledge errors foments cynicism and further distrust of experts.” Because of this failure, a crucial question goes unanswered: Why were they wrong?
Look again at Fournier’s prediction. Not only did he predict that Kemp’s decision would result in Georgians dying, but he also said that the infected people would “move around the country” spreading death and destruction. That would be a better description of what Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York have done to America, as even the New York Times has acknowledged: “Travel From New York City Seeded Wave of U.S. Outbreaks.” Scientists analyzing the genetics of COVID-19 cases nationwide concluded that New York “became the primary source of new infections in the United States … as thousands of infected people traveled from the city and seeded outbreaks around the country”:
The research indicates that a wave of infections swept from New York City through much of the country before the city began setting social distancing limits to stop the growth. That helped to fuel outbreaks in Louisiana, Texas, Arizona and as far away as the West Coast.…
“We now have enough data to feel pretty confident that New York was the primary gateway for the rest of the country,” said Nathan Grubaugh, an epidemiologist at the Yale School of Public Health.
Exactly how this might have been prevented is a matter of hindsight speculation, but if Ron Fournier wanted to talk about people moving around to “spread more death and economic destruction,” why point the finger at Georgia instead of New York? And if Fournier wanted to name someone with “blood on his hands,” why not Cuomo? But while we’re asking rhetorical questions, let us ask, does Fournier even know how viruses spread?
This was what was so wrong with his prediction about Georgia. In a pandemic, the direction of transmission is from areas with high levels of infection to areas with lower levels of infection. Kemp’s April 20 decision to end the state’s lockdown could not turn Georgia into a major hub of COVID-19 transmission, because the state had (and still has) a relatively low level of infection, compared to other states. As of Sunday, Georgia ranked 19th in the U.S. in reported per-capita infection rate from the coronavirus, behind New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Delaware, Louisiana, Maryland, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Michigan, South Dakota, Iowa, Indiana, Colorado, Mississippi, and Virginia. While Georgia’s infection rate is higher than the neighboring states of Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Florida, the difference is relatively small compared to such hotbeds of disease as New York, which has a rate more than five times higher than Georgia’s.
Part of the obvious explanation for why New York leads the U.S. in coronavirus infections is population density, especially in New York City and its suburbs. While there have been outbreaks in some rural areas — including a particularly deadly one in Georgia’s Dougherty County — the pandemic has hit hardest in big cities, where conditions are most conducive to the spread of the disease. The difference in these conditions cannot be changed by government fiat; Georgia would continue to have a lower infection rate than New York no matter what Gov. Kemp did — or what Gov. Cuomo did, for that matter. It would be difficult (if not impossible) to imagine a scenario in which the outbreak in Georgia became so severe as to put the rest of the country at risk, as the outbreak in New York did.
Hindsight recriminations are useless, but it would be helpful if media “experts” like Ron Fournier demonstrated a capacity to learn from their errors. Why was it so easy for them to assume that Brian Kemp didn’t know what he was doing? In point of fact, Georgia’s deaths from COVID-19 peaked on April 16, just four days before Kemp announced his plan to begin reopening the state. Although it doesn’t seem that Kemp could have known on April 20 that the daily death toll wouldn’t spike up again, the upward trajectory of that grim statistic had clearly lost its momentum. Since peaking at 54 deaths on April 16, the daily number has fallen more or less steadily; by May 4, it was down to 28 and, while subsequent death counts are still listed as “preliminary,” the decline has apparently continued, averaging 17 per day during the week of May 8–14. That’s a 55 percent decline from the 38 coronavirus deaths Georgia recorded on April 20, when Fournier warned that Kemp would have “blood on his hands.”
Georgia has so far recorded 1,609 deaths from COVID-19, which is 152 deaths per million residents. That death rate is 89 percent lower than New York’s rate. Even if the virus suddenly spiked upward in Georgia, is there anyone who imagines it could ever approach the death rate in New York, where more than 28,000 people have died from this disease? But death is not just a statistic in epidemiology; it is the ultimate in “social distancing.” You only die once, and death rather drastically reduces your chance of spreading infection.
This is not dark sarcasm, but quite relevant to an important scientific truth that the media fear-mongers have neglected to study. Last month, journalist Michael Fumento pointed to Farr’s Law, named for 19th-century British scientist William Farr, who observed that “epidemics grow fastest at first and then slow to a peak, then decline in a more-or-less symmetrical pattern.” This is true without regard to quarantines or other human interventions because, as Fumento put it, in the early stages of a contagious outbreak “the disease grabs the low-hanging fruit,” killing the most vulnerable, but as time goes on, the disease “finds it progressively harder to get more fruit.”
In the case of COVID-19, the most vulnerable were the elderly and people with certain underlying health problems, such as obesity, hypertension, and diabetes. Many people reading this column are in one of these high-risk categories, but you’re not dead yet, are you? Why not? You may believe that “social distancing” accounts for your survival, and you may be right. On the other hand, however, you may have already been infected with the coronavirus and recovered without ever experiencing serious symptoms. As testing for the virus has become more widespread, we have learned that asymptomatic cases are quite common. For example, when staff and inmates at a Tennessee prison were tested last month, more than half tested positive for coronavirus, but 98 percent of those who did test positive were asymptomatic. Such results point to the likelihood that the number of people infected by COVID-19 is much larger than the number of reported cases, and that in turn indicates that the disease is much less deadly, in terms of what’s called “infection fatality rate” (IFR.) A recent study in Indiana concluded that about 45 percent of infected people never developed symptoms, and only 1 in 173 infections were fatal, an IFR of 0.58 percent.
We do not know enough about this disease yet to be able to predict who will get infected, or who among those infected will get sick or die. Nor do we know why some infected people never get symptoms. What we do know is that, so far, ending the statewide lockdown in Georgia has not produced the catastrophe that the media doomsayers predicted. Have they learned anything? Probably not. When confronted by his critics, Ron Fournier used his “apology” as an excuse to blame Trump, citing overly optimistic statements the president made about the coronavirus outbreak in January and February. And then someone pointed out that Fournier himself has promoted an optimistic view in February. Oops.
Conservative blogger Ace of Spades suggests that perhaps Fournier and his media peers are not just accidentally wrong, but that “everything they say is a lie and they are vicious, evil subhumans.” This is an interesting hypothesis, and I doubt any of us will live long enough to see it disproven. Oh, the mysteries of science!