For the first 15 years of my law practice, under the guiding hand of my dad, I was given the task of defending doctors in medical malpractice cases. I would often be dispatched around the United States to take the deposition of expert medical witnesses who would either defend or criticize our client’s action.
The expert witnesses were almost always extraordinarily qualified in their field. As one might expect, the expert’s opinions conflicted. But it would usually become apparent through the course of the proceeding that one of the experts had it right, and another had it wrong. I once asked my dad how qualified experts can give such conflicting testimony. He said, “They’re all smart, but they’re not always right.”
Over the past several days, I have had the opportunity to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic with epidemiologists at The Ohio State University and the Cleveland Clinic. These are among the folks who are advising Governor DeWine on the course of this disease. By all accounts, they are top people in their field. However, many of the early predictions regarding the pandemic, such as the number of cases per day, the number of deaths and other effects have proven to be immensely overstated.
In my conference calls, I asked every expert about one issue in particular: the projected number of beds that would be needed for hospitalization of COVID-19 patients. Their predictions, which took into account the aggressive social distancing measures Governor DeWine had put into place, was that Ohio would need 30,000 to 35,000 hospital beds for COVID-19 patients at the peak of the pandemic. In preparation, hospitals around the state were required to cancel all but emergency cases.
As of April 17th, there were 1,028 COVID-19 patients in Ohio’s hospitals. The doctors at OSU now estimate that at the peak of the hospital bed usage on April 28th, the required number of beds would be approximately 2,000. The Cleveland Clinic doctors indicate that the peak of the pandemic was reached on April 15, 2020.
In my conversations with the experts, I asked the question: Given that you had taken into account the social distancing measures, but the number of hospital beds needed has been overestimated by a factor of more than 15, is it possible that this virus is not as contagious or as debilitating as first thought?
After commenting that mine was a fair question, they all politely answered “no” and explained that “the modeling shows otherwise.”
I also asked the experts if the Ohio Department of Health should be releasing information besides total number of cases and total number of deaths. This would include pertinent information like the number of COVID-19 patients who have completely recovered, where the cases are (nursing homes? prisons?), and of those who have died, what percentage were elderly or had underlying health issues.
They agreed these were all important facts for public consideration.
There are experts in every field of endeavor, but even the best sometimes do not get it right. That doesn’t mean they are any less capable. Remember Michigan and Appalachian State in 2007? Or the night of the November 2016 election, when many expert pundits gave Hillary Clinton a 99% chance of winning the presidency? Mistakes are made by smart pollsters, lawyers, engineers, plumbers, doctors, etc.
I would guess that anyone in Governor DeWine’s position in early March would have taken the same measures he did, given the information he had. Indeed, President Trump and most governors took largely the same steps. But we know much more now than we did in early March.
Government tends to move slowly and awkwardly in responding to crises and solving problems; Americans designed it this way to preserve our civil liberties. But with so many businesses shuttered and nearly one million Ohioans filing for unemployment benefits in the past few weeks, quick action is needed.
My recommendation to Governor DeWine and other state leaders is that the process of reopening businesses is best led by the businesses themselves. They have a vested interest in protecting their employees and customers, and they have the knowledge to implement those protections; many have been doing so for the past six weeks. No amount of central planning can replace that motivation, especially in smaller counties that are uniquely situated to create plans and administer a smooth and effective reopening. Since the enforcement of health regulations is almost always done at a local level, this approach makes even more sense.
Waiting until summer to open up Ohio is not supported by the science, medical or economic.
Matt Huffman, R-Lima, has represented the 12th District in the Ohio Senate since 2017, which includes Allen, Champaign, Mercer and Shelby counties, as well as parts of Auglaize, Darke and Logan counties. He currently is serving as the Ohio Senate Majority Leader.