More Minnesota Madness

By April 14, 2020 Commentary

I don’t mean to pick on my home state, but the decision-making here is typical of what has happened elsewhere.  Like most states, Minnesota is doing a daily press briefing where information is updated and questions can be asked.  It is tedious and painful to listen to these and not many people do, unfortunately, because we wouldn’t walk away with the greatest sense of confidence in our leaders.  You can watch it for yourself here.  (April 13 Mn. Briefing)   First of all, I want to say that I am sure these people are trying to do the best job they can and they seem like decent people.  But we didn’t elect them and they didn’t get appointed to be nice and try hard, we put them in those positions to make the best decisions for all the people.  I am working on a longer post on decision-making through the earlier stages of the epidemic, but I just want to point out a few things said yesterday that reveal the poor reasoning going on here.  For the first time, the Governor is getting some serious pushback on both the need for the shutdown and the effects of it, and he didn’t handle it well, basically evading the questions and falling back on fallacious reasoning.

You have to put this all in the context of Minnesota having exceptionally low infection and case rates, and serious illness being concentrated among the elderly, with the average age of deaths being over 85.  You would think that alone might have a person wondering if a more targeted mitigation of spread approach might not be better, since it would obviously cause less damage.  One data point that came out of the briefing was that 385,000 Minnesotans, at least, are now unemployed as a result of the order, and the total is likely higher because people who get severance have to wait to apply for unemployment benefits.  Many others have had hours or income reduced.  So the damage from the shutdown is not trivial.  But the Governor is hell-bent not to change it.

Here are some lowlights from the briefing.  The Governor said he was going to continue the shutdown, stay-at-home order because he was listening to the experts.  The experts, who are apparently executives from health care systems, etc., are concerned about adequacy of protective equipment, beds, ventilators, etc.   The Governor is apparently not paying attention to or doesn’t believe the results of his own modeling, which is supposed to be incorporating all this expert advice.  And he has his reasoning completely backward, the number of infections and deaths isn’t determined by the amount of health resources, whether you have enough resources is determined by the number of cases you project.  His current best projections are estimating a level of cases and deaths that the health system can handle.  I would note in particular that while the original modeling said there were only around 235 ICU beds in the state, by the time of the reforecast that number had grown ten-fold.  And the reality is the health system could handle more cases than the peak need now projected.  So he can just stop using the weak excuse that we have to build health resources for a peak that isn’t coming.

And there is no doubt that the projections of cases is going to fall further when the next runs of the model are done, just as happened between the original model runs and the next set that was released.  Someone asked why the model wasn’t being updated daily, and the Governor literally said “the model doesn’t work that way”.  I beg your pardon, but it most certainly does work that way.  You can run it 24 hours a day and get new results any time you want.  You can feed updated information into it every day, or several times a day.  Better estimates of transmissibility, infection rates, rates of serious illness, etc. are constantly available.  And I am sure the model is being run and tested every day.  When challenged on the death estimates of 22,000 in Minnesota, while only about 60,000 are estimated nationally, the Governor appropriately pointed out that different models with different time frames were used to get those numbers.  But he then went on to say the Minnesota model wasn’t meant to predict deaths.  This is astounding, all the Governor has done is use the number of deaths projected to justify his orders.   He has constantly referred to the number of deaths, that is all he has referred to; I haven’t once heard mention of the number of people out of work, for example.  But now he tells us the model wasn’t meant to predict deaths?  Well, what is it for then?

His other responses to being pushed on why the order is staying in place in its current form were equally lame.  He used the “everyone else is doing it” excuse, which is exactly how we got into this mess; a bunch of Governors acting like lemmings and going over the cliff together.  He said no one was questioning his decision on the merits.  I think there are a lot of people questioning the basis for the orders, I think I am trying to do that here.  And of course he said he is relying on the scientists.  Yep, that’s what we elected you for, to hide behind experts that you are actually ignoring.

Here is the inescapable fact:  THE CURRENT MODEL RUNS SAY YOU GET THE SAME RESULTS WITH A TARGETED SHUTDOWN AS THE GENERAL ONE!  So why, when the general shutdown is so much more costly in terms of jobs lost and other harms, do you persist with it?

I hesitate to suggest this, but now I think the Governor is just being driven by pride and stubbornness.  A week or so ago, it is hard to keep track of time now, I suggested what a real leader would say at this point, that he or she would acknowledge making a mistake and appropriately change course.  Our Governor seems incapable of doing that, and that pride and stubbornness is costing Minnesotans.

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