Don't move the COVID-19 goalpost

Don't move the COVID-19 goalpost
© John Moore/Getty Images

There will be more deaths if the U.S. opens too soon. On one side America, it's an indictment of the hastily made ambitions of the heartless. On the other, it's a plot for the country's take-down. In a divided country, no one can offer a middle path. 

At Dr. Anthony Fauci's recent Senate hearing, we could hear the party line of the expert consensus. Open only when infections are falling and hospitals are ready. Make decisions place by place. Don't expect a vaccine. Be prepared for more cases and deaths. 

The hearing didn't provide much political ammunition, but it could have offered more perspective.

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In March, Americans came together for a specific goal: COVID-19 wasn't going to make us ration ventilators or let anyone die without health care. We are winning that battle. Those now reacting to daily body counts and projections are forgetting the goal. 

When it mattered, people came together and cooperated, regardless of whether they were in red or blue states. They stopped shopping, eating out, and seeing friends. They stopped shaking hands and started distancing. They did these things to protect themselves and their neighbors. They did them before governments told them to. 

And, infections in most places have crested. Take a good look at the curves today for California, Texas, and Ohio. They all look about the same. 

No one should expect infections to go in only one direction. Until we know better, most of us are susceptible. One stray infection can light up a nursing home, prison, or shelter. 

The virus also doesn't land everywhere at once. It moves from house to house, and from neighborhood to neighborhood. Places it's missed will get their turn. COVID-19 is taking its own time, making its way across this vast land. Still, there is good reason to think that our hospitals, working together, can cope. 

Most hospitals never come close to their limits. CDC data shows that with today's infection levels, only seven states are using over 70 percent of their hospital capacities. Even New York has rooms.

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States and counties are now making their own decisions. The governors aren't heartless; they are just making hard trade-offs. In democracies, this is what we do. Most people will continue their caution. 

For some, protecting hospitals no longer means success. Each day, we hear alarms about case counts or predictions of deaths. Even Cuomo is in the hot seat for letting people gather. 

Every life is sacred, but COVID-19 isn't the only disease that kills Americans. People are still dying from heart attacks, overdoses, and road wrecks. These are all preventable but not in the news. And thanks to COVID-19, we are seeing fewer children vaccinated, more suicide calls, and lines at food banks. 

The more honest politicians could start telling us that we can't have everything. People can take it. Most people want policies to be based on reason and not on either politics or fear. 

At least, the leaders shouldn't move the goalposts now. Not everyone gets to work from home for Facebook. The focus should be squarely on the hospitals. People can wash their hands and wear masks. We can test and trace. States can protect the elderly and the vulnerable. Early warning indicators like regional case rates will tell us when and where we need to go in reverse.

Don't blame leaders for closing or re-opening. They have a tough job. The sacrifices that good people made for a very good reason worked. Let's honor those and now work with the same unity on the hard recovery ahead.

COVID-19 will be with us for a while. Science is still waiting to learn all its secrets. The virus is going to surprise us. It's only the first quarter and it's too early to call the winner.

Rajiv Bhatia, M.D., is a practicing physician and an affiliated assistant clinical professor of Medicine at Stanford University. He was a deputy health officer for San Francisco between 1998 and 2014 and has been recognized as one of the 75 most influential alumni of the School of Public Health at Berkeley.