Time to Mitigate, Not Contain

In a few hours, I debate “Covid-19: Contain or Mitigate?” with Tomas “Hammer & Dance” Pueyo, author of many popular pandemic posts (e.g. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7). Let me try to summarize my position.

We have long needed a Plan B for the scenario where a big fraction of everyone gets exposed to Covid19, and for this plan I’ve explored variolation and other forms of deliberate exposure. To be ready, variolation just needs a small (~100) short (1-2mo.) trial to verify the quite likely (>75%) case that it works (cuts harm by 3-30x), but alas, while funding and volunteers can be found, med ethics panels have consistently disapproved. (Months later, they haven’t even allowed the widely praised human challenge trials for vaccines, some of which would include variolation trials.)

One big reason we aren’t preparing enough for Plan B is that many of us are mentally stuck in a Plan A “monkey trap.” Like a monkey who gets caught because it won’t let go of a tasty nut held in its fist within a gourd, we are so focused on containing this pandemic that we won’t explore options premised on failing to contain.

Containment seeks to keep infections permanently low, via keeping most from being exposed, for at least several years until a strong lasting vaccine is widely applied. Mitigation, in contrast, accepts that most will be exposed, and seeks only to limit the rate or exposure to keep medical systems from being overwhelmed, and to maintain enough critical workers in key roles.

Succeeding at containment is of course a much bigger win, which is why containment is the usual focus early in a pandemic. Catch it fast enough, and hit it hard enough with testing, tracing, and isolation, and the world is saved. But eventually, if you fail at that Plan A, and it grows big enough across across a wide enough area, you may need to admit failure and switch to a Plan B.

And, alas, that’s where we seem to be now with Covid-19. Over the last 7 weeks since the cases peak the official worldwide case count has been rising slowly, while official deaths are down ~25%. In the US, deaths are down ~1/2 since he peak 6 weeks ago. You might think, “yay, declines, we are winning!” But no, these declines are just too slow, as well as too uncertain.

Most of the US decline has been in New York, which has just now reached bottom, with no more room to decline. And even if US could maintain the rate of declining by 1/3 every 6 weeks, and repeat that 5 times over 30 weeks (= 7 months), not at all a sure thing, that would only bring daily US cases from 31K at the peak down to 4.2K. Which isn’t clearly low enough for test and trace to keep it under control without lockdown. And, more important, we just can’t afford to lockdown for that long.

You see, lockdown is very expensive. On average, around the world, lockdowns seems to cost about one third of local average income. Yet I estimate the cost of failing to contain, and letting half the population get infected with Covid-19 (at IFR ~0.5%), to be about 3 weeks of income. (Each death loses ~8 QALY.) So 9 weeks of strong lockdown produces about the same total harm as failing to contain! And where I live, we have almost had 10 weeks of lockdown.

If without lockdown the death rate would double due to an overloaded medical system, then paying for less than 9 weeks of added lockdown to prevent that is a good deal. But at that point, paying more than an additional 9 weeks of strong lockdown to prevent all deaths would not be a good deal. So our willingness to pay for lockdowns to cut deaths should really be quite limited. Sure, if we were at a tipping point where spending just a bit more would make all the difference between success and failure, then sure we should spend that bit more. But that’s just not plausibly where we are now.

Yes, sometimes we pay more to prevent harm than we suffer on average from such harms. For example, we pay more for door locks, and security guards, than we lose on average from theft. But those are very effective ways to prevent harm; paying 10% more there cuts harms by much more than 10%. Yet according to my Twitters polls, most see 10% more spent on lockdown as producing much less than 10% fewer deaths. If so, we should spend much less on lockdowns than we suffer from pandemic deaths.

Now if Pueyo is reading this, I suspect he’s screaming “But we’ve been doing it all wrong! Other possible policies exist that are far more effective, and if we use them containment becomes cost-effective. See Taiwan or South Korea.” And yes, other places have achieved better outcomes via better policies. We might not be able to do as well as them now that we’ve lost so much time, but we might well do much better than currently. Pueyo has sketched out plans, and they even seem to be good sketches.

So if we suddenly made Tomas Pueyo into a policy czar tomorrow, with an unlimited budget and able to run roughshod across most related laws or policies, we’d probably get much better Covid-19 outcomes, perhaps even cost-effective containment. But once such a precedent was set, I’d fear for the effectiveness of future czars. Ambitious politicians and rent-seekers would seek to manufacture crises and pseudo-Pueyo-czar candidates, all to get access to those unlimited budgets and legal powers.

Which is a big part of why we have the political systems we do. All around the world, we have created public health agencies tasked with pandemic policy, and political systems that oversee them. These agencies are staffed with experts trained in various schools of thought, who consult with academic experts of varying degrees of prestige. And all are constrained by local legal precedent, and by public perceptions, distrust, and axes of political conflict. These are the people and systems that have produced the varying policies we have now, all around the world.

Yes, those of us in places which have seen worse outcomes should ask ourselves how strong a critique that fact offers of our existing institutions and political cultures, and what we might do to reform them. But there is no easy and fast answer there; good reforms will have to be carefully considered, tested, and debated. We can hope to eventually improve via reforms, but, and this is the key point, we have no good reason to expect much better pandemic policy in the near future than we have seen in the near past. Even when policy makers have access to well-considered policy analyses by folks like Pueyo.

Now it might be possible to get faster political action if Pueyo and many other elites would coordinate and publicly back one specific standard plan, say the “John Hopkins Plan”, that specifies many details on how to do testing, tracing, isolation, etc. Especially if this plan pretty directly copied a particular successful policy package from, say, Taiwan. If enough people yelled in unison “We must do this or millions will die!”, why then politicians might well cave and make it happen.

But that is just not what is happening. Instead, we have dozens of essays and white papers pushing for dozens of related but different proposals. So there’s no clear political threat for politicians to fear defying. Whatever they do, come re-election time politicians can point to some who pushed for some of what they did. So all these divergent essays have mainly limited short term political effects, though they may do much more to raise the status of their authors.

So if political complexity argues against containment now in many places, why doesn’t that same argument apply equally well to mitigation? After all, mitigation can also be done well or badly, and it must be overseen by the same agencies and politicians that would oversee containment. As there is no escaping the fact that many detailed policy choices must be made, why not push for the best detailed packages of choices that we know?

Imagine that you were driving from A to B, and your first instinct was to take a simple route via two interstate freeways, both in big valleys. Your friend instead suggests that you take a backroad mountain short cut, using eight different road segments, many of them with only one lane, and some very wiggly. (Assume no phone or GPS.) That plan might look like it would take less total time, but you should worry about your competence to follow it. If you are very tired, bad at following road directions, or bad at sticking to wiggly roads, you might prefer to instead take the interstates. Especially if it was your tired 16 year old teen son who will do the driving.

Like the wiggly backroad short cut, containment is a more fragile plan, more sensitive to details; it has to be done more exactly right to work. To contain well, we need the right combination of the right rules about who can work and shop, and with what masks, gloves, and distance, tests going to the right people run by the right testing orgs, the right tracing done the right way by the right orgs with the right supporting apps, and the right rules requiring who gets isolated where upon what indications of possible infection. All run by the right sort of people using the right sort of local orgs and legal authority. And coordinated to right degree with neighboring jurisdictions, to avoid “peeing section of the pool” problems.

Yes, we might relax lockdown badly, but we are relaxing toward a known standard policy: no lockdown. So there are fewer ways to go wrong there. In contrast, there are just more ways to go wrong in trying to lockdown even more strictly. And that’s why it can make sense for the public to say to the government, “you guys haven’t been doing so well at containment, so let’s quit that and relax lockdown faster, shooting only for mitigation.” Yes, that might go badly, but it can’t go quite as badly as the worse possible scenario, where we trash the economy with long painful lockdowns, and yet still fail and most everyone gets exposed.

And that’s my argument for mitigation, relative to containment.

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