opinion

OPINION: Reopening Indiana on May 1 is dangerous. Holcomb must do more first.



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Gov. Eric Holcomb addresses the media April 19, 2017, in East Chicago, Indiana. Tribune News Service

Gov. Eric Holcomb announced Friday that Indiana’s stay-at-home order would be extended from its original end date of April 22 to May 1.

Indiana’s caseload and death count continues to rise, with more than 12,400 cases and 660 deaths as of Wednesday. Though some Hoosier voices, such as Rep. Trey Hollingsworth, have called for an end to social distancing, ending the stay-at-home order in early May would be a disaster for the state.

Before Indiana reopens, we need stronger containment strategies, including face mask requirements and expanded testing.

Given the uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, many Americans have turned to statistical models in order to understand when their state may face the brunt of the virus.

The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation provides one of the most influential COVID-19 predictive models. Even the White House has cited it. The model suggests Indiana likely has already reached its peak in daily deaths. 

But this forecast can be misleading.

The model assumes that Indiana continues heavy social distancing through May 20 and makes tests widely available. However, Holcomb's current order only lasts until the beginning of the month, and Indiana has not met the testing assumptions, rendering the forecast unreliable.

Not even Indiana officials agree with IHME’s projected timing of the peak. At an April 13 press briefing, State Health Commissioner Kristina Box said she expects a peak in Marion County at the end of April and in the rest of the state in early May.

Holcomb has been issuing the stay-at-home extensions in two-week intervals, and he may do so again. But Holcomb also stated in a press briefing Thursday that he thinks the state would be ready to reopen in early May.

The research is clear that reopening the state on May 1 would endanger Hoosier lives.

A March study from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine studied the effects of social distancing in Wuhan, China — the site of the first major COVID-19 outbreak. One of its results indicated that lifting restrictions would lead to a dangerous secondary surge.

I’m sympathetic to those who want to get the economy moving again. After all, more than 22 million Americans lost their jobs in four weeks, according to U.S. unemployment data.

But prematurely ending the stay-at-home order is not the way to address economic concerns. Instead, Holcomb and state officials need to implement stronger containment strategies.

One such suggestion is a state order that mandates wearing face masks in public.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing face masks in public to help slow the spread of the virus.

But face masks are only recommended, not required, in Indiana. Other states such as New York and Pennsylvania are requiring citizens to wear face masks when venturing into businesses or in the close proximity of others.

Indiana should do the same.

Holcomb should also push to more aggressively test Indiana citizens. Harvard University researchers estimated last week that a minimum of 152 tests per 100,000 people per day need to be conducted before the economy can safely reopen.

Over the last week, Indiana has tested about 45 people per 100,000 per day — less than one-third of the level necessary to ease social distancing.

The state's testing guidelines require individuals to meet strict criteria to be tested, including showing serious symptoms. Indiana needs to loosen these restrictions in order to test more citizens.

More tests will also allow us to conduct contact tracing — identifying who else may have been infected by someone with a positive COVID-19 diagnosis. Techniques such as these will greatly improve our ability to contain the virus.

Increasing testing capacity will allow us to safely reopen faster. To achieve higher capacity, Holcomb will need to secure more testing kits.

Holcomb can follow in the footsteps of Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, who announced April 20 a push to greatly increase the testing capacity of his state, including 250,000 new tests in the “coming weeks.” Holcomb can do the same by expanding public-private partnerships with businesses such as Eli Lilly.

An extension of the stay-at-home order to May 1 will not defeat COVID-19. We need stronger containment strategies before we can safely open the state.

Christian Sayers (he/him) is a senior studying mathematics and economics. He hopes to someday own a large rabbit.

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