Why was the entire country not locked down during major pandemics of 1968/69, 1957, 1949-1952 or even the Spanish Flu of 1918?
That’s a question many are asking some two months into the unprecedented mass quarantine of the healthy in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Whatever the answer, wrote Jeffrey A. Tucker, editorial director for the American Institute for Economic Research, it must be “a bizarre tale.”
“How,” he asked, “did a temporary plan to preserve hospital capacity turn into two-to-three months of near-universal house arrest that ended up causing worker furloughs at 256 hospitals, a stoppage of international travel, a 40% job loss among people earning less than $40K per year, devastation of every economic sector, mass confusion and demoralization, a complete ignoring of all fundamental rights and liberties, not to mention the mass confiscation of private property with forced closures of millions of businesses?”
Tucker, citing in part a New York Times story published last month, traced the theory behind the lockdown to 2006. And, indeed, it is a bizarre tale.
“So far as anyone can tell, the intellectual machinery that made this mess was invented 14 years ago, and not by epidemiologists but by computer-simulation modelers,” he wrote. “It was adopted not by experienced doctors – they warned ferociously against it – but by politicians.”
The phrase social distancing turned up for the first time in a Feb. 12, 2006, New York Times story at the time of the avian flu outbreak. Tucker recalled that the extreme warnings of its lethality didn’t pan out.
But the outbreak did prompt President George W. Bush to study up on the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic and commission experts to come up with a plan for the next big one, the New York Times reported last month.
Two federal government doctors, Richard Hatchett and Carter Mecher, proposed requiring Americans to stay home from work and school the next time the country was hit by a deadly pandemic.
Their plan was met with skepticism and some ridicule by senior officials accustomed to relying on the pharmaceutical industry rather than a Middle Ages-style approach of self-isolation.
Nevertheless, the Times said, how that plan “became the heart of the national playbook for responding to a pandemic is one of the untold stories of the coronavirus crisis.”
Mecher, a Department of Veterans Affairs physician, and Hatchett, an oncologist turned White House adviser, had to overcome intense initial opposition, the Times said.
Their work was combined with that of a Defense Department team assigned to a similar task.
The 14-year-old girl behind social distancing
One of the unusual turns in the story, the Times said, was the role of a high school research project by 14-year-old Laura Glass, the daughter of a scientist at the Sandia National Laboratories.
The concept of social distancing was viewed as impractical, unnecessary and politically infeasible. But according to the Albuquerque Journal, Glass, “with some guidance from her dad, devised a computer simulation that showed how people – family members, co-workers, students in schools, people in social situations – interact.”
“What she discovered was that school kids come in contact with about 140 people a day, more than any other group,” the newspaper said. “Based on that finding, her program showed that in a hypothetical town of 10,000 people, 5,000 would be infected during a pandemic if no measures were taken, but only 500 would be infected if the schools were closed.”
Tucker noted that Laura Glass’ name appears on the foundational paper arguing for lockdowns and forced human separation, titled “Targeted Social Distancing Designs for Pandemic Influenza.”
The authors “conclude with a chilling call for what amounts to a totalitarian lockdown, all stated very matter-of-factly,” Tucker wrote.
Tucker pointed out that in the course of the planning, neither legal nor economic experts were brought in to advise. Instead the task fell to an intensive care doctor with no previous expertise in pandemics, Mecher, and an oncologist, Hatchett.
“In other words, it was a high-school science experiment that eventually became law of the land, and through a circuitous route propelled not by science but politics,” he wrote.
The primary author of the paper, Robert J. Glass, had no medical training nor any experience in immunology or epidemiology.
That explains, Tucker wrote, why Dr. D.A. Henderson, “who had been the leader of the international effort to eradicate smallpox,” completely rejected the scheme.
Henderson, according to the Times, “was convinced that it made no sense to force schools to close or public gatherings to stop.”
He wrote in an academic paper responding to the proposal that it would “result in significant disruption of the social functioning of communities and result in possibly serious economic problems.”
Henderson, along with three Johns Hopkins medical professors, advised letting the pandemic spread, treating people who get sick and working quickly to develop a vaccine to prevent it from coming back.
Tucker called the paper “a remarkably readable refutation of the entire lock-down model.”
“There are no historical observations or scientific studies that support the confinement by quarantine of groups of possibly infected people for extended periods in order to slow the spread of influenza,” the scholars wrote.
“It is difficult to identify circumstances in the past half-century when large-scale quarantine has been effectively used in the control of any disease.”
They warned that the “negative consequences of large-scale quarantine are so extreme (forced confinement of sick people with the well; complete restriction of movement of large populations; difficulty in getting critical supplies, medicines, and food to people inside the quarantine zone) that this mitigation measure should be eliminated from serious consideration.”
The authors said home quarantine also raises ethical questions.
“Implementation of home quarantine could result in healthy, uninfected people being placed at risk of infection from sick household members,” they said.
They also argued that travel restrictions, “such as closing airports and screening travelers at borders, have historically been ineffective.”
Further, during “seasonal influenza epidemics, public events with an expected large attendance have sometimes been cancelled or postponed, the rationale being to decrease the number of contacts with those who might be contagious.”
“There are, however, no certain indications that these actions have had any definitive effect on the severity or duration of an epidemic.”
They acknowledged that schools often are closed for one to two weeks early in the development of seasonal community flu outbreaks due to high absentee rates.
“This would seem reasonable on practical grounds. However, to close schools for longer periods is not only impracticable but carries the possibility of a serious adverse outcome.”
Tucker notes the paper’s “remarkable conclusion.”
“Experience has shown that communities faced with epidemics or other adverse events respond best and with the least anxiety when the normal social functioning of the community is least disrupted. Strong political and public health leadership to provide reassurance and to ensure that needed medical care services are provided are critical elements,” the authors wrote. “If either is seen to be less than optimal, a manageable epidemic could move toward catastrophe.”
Tucker wrote: “Confronting a manageable epidemic and turning it into a catastrophe: that seems like a good description of everything that has happened in the COVID-19 crisis of 2020.”
Ideas clearly have consequences.
“Dream up an idea for a virus-controlling totalitarian society, one without an endgame and eschewing any experienced-based evidence that it would achieve the goal, and you might see it implemented someday,” he wrote.
“Lockdown might be the new orthodoxy but that doesn’t make it medically sound or morally correct,” he said. “At least now we know that many great doctors and scholars in 2006 did their best to stop this nightmare from unfolding. Their mighty paper should serve as a blueprint for dealing with the next pandemic.”