Keeping seniors locked down— is that the best we can do?

Bill Walczak

Hints on how the governor was going to approach the “reopening” of the economy were mounting last week. On Thursday, a Boston Globe article by staff members Shirley Leung and Larry Edelman noted that “a growing number of scientists, economists, and business leaders” have come up with reopening strategies balancing health and economic needs that include “maintain[ing] a stay-at-home advisory for seniors.”

The article continued: “A group of MIT economists” looked at the “stark choice between saving lives and saving the economy,” and concluded that “combining a protective lockdown of those 65 and older with lesser restrictions on younger adults could decrease both deaths and economic harm.”

Then, on Saturday, an opinion piece offered to the Globe by two men who have been advising the governor on reopening strategies, Christopher Anderson, president of the Massachusetts High Technology Council, and Steve Pagliuca, co-chairman of Bain Capital and co-owner of the Boston Celtics, spoke of the “difficult decisions” that will need to be made to reopen the economy, by “do[ing] what’s doable and temper expectations on testing and vaccine development,” and that “current testing options are severely constrained, and the cost of deploying them at scale is prohibitive.”

Meanwhile beyond Massachusetts, the CEO of the Ford Motor Co., in noting the reopening of his company, said that it is “not practical to test everyone every day.”

For the past month, we’ve heard that massive testing is the only way out of a continuous cycle of caseload spikes followed by crackdowns. The World Health Organization noted that countries are driving blind without widespread testing, immediate quarantining of those positive, and strong contact testing. Countries that have put a lid on COVID-19 have done this. The effect is to allow residents of all ages in those countries to feel safe enough to re-engage with society.

But I guess our “growing number of scientists, economists, and business leaders” have come to the conclusion that massive testing isn’t possible to do in Massachusetts at this time. We need 6-to7 times the number of daily tests that we’re currently doing to get to the minimum necessary for residents not to be driving blind. What happened to large-scale testing?

Here are the problems with reopening the state without massive, accurate testing:

• Studies indicate that as many as 25 percent of those with the virus are asymptomatic. We’re all at risk because a huge number of people who are carriers of the virus do not know it.

• We are nowhere near so-called herd immunity. An MGH/Boston Public Health Commission study suggests that 90 percent of Bostonians have not been exposed to the virus, and scientists believe that 50 percent to 70 percent exposure is necessary for herd immunity.

• We are still in the dark about the different manifestations of the coronavirus. People who did not have fevers and coughs were routinely prevented from being tested in March and April, but now we know that there are many other symptoms that indicate an infection, including loss of taste and smell, skin inflammations, and lower GI issues.

• We don’t have medical treatments that have been proven to work. Even the drug remdesivir, which is promising, does not prevent death, though it does reduce ventilator time for some who wind up in intensive care.

• Although there are hundreds of efforts to create a vaccine, it is unclear whether there will be a vaccine in the next year, or ever, for that matter.

The governor has decided to reopen the economy in phases, with no universal testing, which he says is “constrained and cost prohibitive.” The plan is to test those with symptoms, those who have been in contact with people who have the virus but don’t have symptoms, those who work in fields that are in contact with people with COVID-19, and those in vulnerable populations.

While this is certainly a smarter way to restart the economy than the “just reopen and see what happens” decisions by a number of governors, for those in risk categories (people of color, those over 60, those who are immune compromised), participating in the reopening will be a bit like stepping out into the square to see if the sniper is still in the nearby tower.

Which explains the recommendation by the MIT scientists to continue the stay-at-home/lockdown for seniors. Keep us in our houses and we won’t get the virus, and that will keep the death rate down. So much for our “golden years.” The Globe article included a suggestion that senior seclusion could be ameliorated by “special hours” to allow us “to walk in public parks.”

We know that we’re likely to see more outbreaks of the virus, and we are fearful that the fall will be worse than this spring. South Korea, which had clamped a lid on the virus due to massive testing and contact tracing, told its people to go out and socialize. Four days later, Seoul shut down many of its socializing places after a new surge, and the country retrenched to a more gradual reopening.

The over-65 population makes up a sizable part of the American populace – some 40 million, and millions of them are still in the workforce. Can the economy successfully reopen with many of those 40 million people missing from the effort?

We seniors may be declining, but to insinuate that we need to be segregated from the rest of society or we will go gentle into that good night is unwarranted and unnecessary. If other countries have been able to do massive testing, immediate quarantining, and contact tracing, our country must also do so.

Our federal government found a trillion dollars to make rich people even richer via tax cuts, and hundreds of billions to bail out corporations harmed by the pandemic.

How about funding to create a coronavirus test that works, daily testing of those who are out in public, and a quarantining and contact tracing system so that all Americans, including seniors, are able to be safe enough to continue to be part of our society.