The last week or so has been something of a whirlwind here in Nebraska, as cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) started to show up. Events have been canceled, schools have closed, state basketball tournaments have been modified to have no meaningful fan presence, colleges have moved toward remote classes, and some businesses have closed down temporarily. Even churches have adapted their usual routine, to encourage people to stay home and watch services via a Livestream.
In much of Nebraska, there is an even greater level of uncertainty. How much toilet paper do we really need? How much “social distancing” is REALLY necessary? Is this all much ado about nothing? Is this a media-driven panic designed to impact elections?
As I’ve contemplated all of this, there are some things that seem clear to me:
- We’re not really prepared for a lot of things.
- The government often gets in the way of being prepared.
Let me explain.
The “COVID-19 scare” is probably a good wake-up call for many of us. Where my grandmothers used to keep canned fruits and vegetables (both things they’d canned, and extras they’d purchased) down in the cellar—and kept a deep freeze half full of meat and other foods—today’s generations seem to be less inclined toward being prepared for the unexpected. In my house, we have a bad habit of saying “what do you want for dinner?” at 4 or 5 p.m. and then running out to get those things. We are a mobile society and it doesn’t seem to bother us to make multiple “quick trips” for groceries each week.
Whether COVID-19, the swine flu, or the next big snowstorm, we may all want to think a little bit more about planning ahead and having a little more of the things we would most likely need in an emergency on hand. That’s all on a personal level.
At the national (and international) level, though, there are problems, as well. From a public health perspective, most experts seem to agree that a fairly widespread infection of this virus is likely. The goal (as seen in the graph) is to slow the spread now so that the health care system has the capacity to care for those who are most vulnerable to serious complications of the virus—the so-called effort to #FlattenTheCurve.
Individual prudence is a good thing. What I find interesting is that it takes an emergency for people to recognize just how stifling government can be for effective responses--and that with those crises, come calls to let the free market work.
For instance, in his declaration of an emergency yesterday,
Speaking in the White House Rose Garden, Trump declared a national emergency that could free up $50 billion to help fight the pandemic and said that he was empowering the secretary of Health and Human Services to waive certain laws and regulations to ensure the virus can be contained and patients treated.
I think it's fascinating that some of these laws and regulations aren't needed in an emergency--and yet they can be justified as market stiflers during normal times. If we can believe that the market will respond during an emergency, why can't we believe that it would respond well during non-emergent times?
Reason recently posted a story about how government regulation stymied innovation during the early days of the COVID-19 epidemic:
The United States is home to the most innovative biotech companies and university research laboratories in the world. That fact should have given our country a huge advantage with respect to detecting and monitoring emerging cases of COVID-19 caused by the new coronavirus outbreak.
Instead, as The New York Times reports in a terrific new article, officials at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stymied private and academic development of diagnostic tests that might have provided an early warning and a head start on controlling the epidemic that is now spreading across the country.
The story relates the experience of infectious disease expert Dr. Helen Chu, who had been collecting nasal swabs in Seattle since January.
She proposed, to federal and state officials, testing those samples for coronavirus infections. As the Times reports, the CDC told Chu and her team that they could not test the samples unless their laboratory test was approved by the FDA. The FDA refused to approve Chu's test on the grounds that her lab, according to the Times, "was not certified as a clinical laboratory under regulations established by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, a process that could take months."
And then, later...
A frustrated Chu and her colleagues began testing on February 25 without government approval. They almost immediately detected a coronavirus infection in a local teenager with no recent travel history. Chu warned local public health officials of her lab's finding and the teenager's school was closed as a precaution. The teen's diagnosis strongly suggested that the disease had been circulating throughout the western part of Washington for weeks. We now know that that is likely true.
In reality, we probably will never know how many of us have had coronavirus this year. Many people have complained this year of flu-like symptoms with coughs that take "forever" to go away. Was it influenza (at least two people in my house had it in early January--and we'd both had flu shots), or was it something else? A failure to unleash testing because of government red tape may mean that many illnesses that were written off as "false negatives" for influenza tests (or which were just assumed to be a flu bug), were unidentified.
In Massachusetts, Governor Chalie Baker announced an executive order which would greatly expedite the ability of certain medical professionals to be licensed in Massachusetts to help fill the gap in caregivers:
Berkshire County, where Baker was in the afternoon, now has a total of nine cases. Public health officials also added a new category to its tracking to report that eight cases are associated with Berkshire Medical Center.
At that hospital, Baker said from Pittsfield, officials are concerned about their ability to appropriately staff the facility given the fact that some workers have been quarantined out of concern that they might have been exposed to the coronavirus.
But because of the emergency declaration he ordered this week, Baker said the state's Board of Registration in Nursing "put in place an emergency procedure that will make it possible for licensed out-of-state medical professionals and nurses to get licensed here in Massachusetts in one day."
"One of the things we heard from the delegation and from the mayor about was a more aggressive process for nurses and other medical professionals who are licensed and qualified in other states to be able to get licensed and qualified in Massachusetts quickly," the governor said after meeting with Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer, Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, Sen. Adam Hinds and others.
I'm going to engage in a little bit of "I told you so" here. What Governor Baker is proposing is that for nurses (not doctors, it appears, but they should be included), if they're licensed in one state, and come to Massachusetts, they will be licensed in Massachusetts in a day. (Apparently issuing a license doesn't have to require applicants to "hurry up and wait" for 60 or 90 days?)
This is essentially "universal recognition," which I've written about before.
A time of crisis is not when we should be thinking about these things. We should recognize that labor markets vary across state lines, and that universal recognition of ALL occupations puts a state in a position of being able to compete for scarce labor resources.
All that said, it's heartening to see some in the government recognize the limited utility of red tape--even if their vision only lasts for a while.