Sunday, August 16, 2020

OCPA column: Rounding errors should not prompt state shutdowns

Rounding errors should not prompt state shutdowns
By Jonathan Small

Too often, policymakers’ response to COVID-19 has involved acting as though the virus is both more deadly and more prevalent than it is, and then calling for mandatory curtailment of citizen activity even in areas where COVID-19 is almost non-existent.

You may recall the state superintendent of public instruction, joined by teachers’ unions, recently wanted school closures to be mandated whenever a county’s “threat” level reached the orange category on the color-coded map released each week by the Oklahoma State Department of Health. That map colors counties either green, yellow, orange or red, based on severity of COVID-19 rates, and counties in the third highest (orange, or “moderate risk”) level have COVID-19 infection rates greater than 14.39 people per 100,000 population.

Schools in counties at the orange level would have either been strongly encouraged or mandated to close if their country reached the orange level. Yet a rate of 14.39 daily new cases per 100,000 population translates into a daily increase of less than two-tenths of 1 percent of a county’s population.

Thus, in counties with small populations, a literal handful of cases can put the entire county over the threshold into the “moderate risk” category. For example, Rogers Mills County was recently in the orange category with only two active COVID-19 cases in its 1,141 square miles. Six other counties were in the orange category with just five to 21 active cases each.

Schools across those counties could have been forced to go entirely to distance learning even when there were literally no COVID-19 cases in the district. Fortunately, the Oklahoma State Board of Education decided to leave local schools in charge of closure decisions.

The Department of Health map provides useful data, but it should not be the arbiter of school closing or other restrictions on citizen or business activity.

Some policymakers and activists have similarly argued for draconian policies based on data that is not cause for alarm if viewed properly. For example, the “surging” numbers of COVID-19 cases in Oklahoma are often a literal decimal-point share of the population. As of Aug. 10, there were 6,980 active COVID-19 cases in Oklahoma. That sounds bad until you realize that group represents less than two-tenths of 1 percent of the state population. The 36,000-plus Oklahomans who have recovered from COVID-19 dwarf the number of active cases. And the survival rate for the virus in Oklahoma is 98.7 percent. When you look at those younger than 65 in recent months, the rate is even better—99.8 percent survival since June.

Citizens should not have severe burdens imposed on them based on statistical changes that amount to rounding errors. Oklahoma leaders should resist calls to impose top-down mandates on all citizens, and instead allow local officials to continue developing local responses based on facts on the ground.

Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.


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