Plucky conservatives gathered here over the weekend to spread a message proving increasingly contagious: That the economic and social shutdowns aimed at slowing the novel coronavirus have become more harmful than the disease.
At the Steamboat Institute Freedom Conference, Dr. Scott Atlas pointed to the economic devastation and its correlation with human life expectancy, as well as the 25% surge in suicidal ideation in June among young adults 18-24, which he attributed to the lockdown, not the virus.
“The first two months of the lockdown lost more years of life by far than the virus itself caused as a life-years-loss equation,” said Dr. Atlas, a member of the White House coronavirus task force. “In other words, the lockdown itself was more harmful than the virus. And I think that is clearly happening now, despite the fact that the virus is very serious, no one’s minimizing that.”
Manhattan Institute fellow Heather MacDonald said the “lockdowns are based on what now can only be regarded as a deliberate disregard of science.”
“Since March, we have known there is virtually no outdoor transmission, that the risk of death from the coronavirus is confined to a small and isolatable segment of the population, and for everyone else, yes, this really does represent a severe case of the flu,” she said. “Yet millions of Americans are still huddled at home, scared to death.”
Even as other summer conservative conferences were canceled or postponed, Steamboat Institute CEO Jennifer Schubert-Akin was determined to carry on, drawing about 200 in-person attendees to the 12th annual gathering and a bevy of high-profile speakers.
There were compromises. The event was held in the ski-resort town of Beaver Creek instead of Steamboat Springs, which has tighter coronavirus restrictions, and the audience was spread over three conference rooms to maximize social distancing.
“It can be done if the event organizer is willing to do what we did, and we’ve had to spend a lot of extra money to make this thing work,” Ms. Schubert-Akin said. “But somebody’s got to do it. I hope we’ve set a good example.”
A few speakers, including Dr. Atlas and special presidential envoy Richard Grenell, spoke via Zoom, but most speakers were on site, including Sen. Cory Gardner, Colorado Republican, who said it was “great to see everyone in person, and not just on Zoom.”
He took aim at the apparent political double-standard that saw crackdowns on certain businesses and gatherings while protests proceeded with the blessing of public health officials.
“When you’re trying to base things on science, and the same scientists come up and say, well, if you were just of this political belief, you’d be OK,” said Mr. Gardner. “Because to me, and to many Americans, that’s what the message seemed to be for a very long time.”
He said that in Colorado, “we lose a person to suicide every seven hours,” and that calls to the suicide hotlines have increased 50% to 60%, with more than half related to the coronavirus.
“This country has shown the world that we have a strong and thriving economy, and when you lift people up and out of poverty, people’s lives improve, their life spans increase, their life expectancy increases, their quality of life increases,” said Mr. Gardner.
The shutdown’s constitutional violations have been extensive, according to Chapman University law school professor John Eastman, who cited clampdowns on churches and gun shops as well as some of the emergency orders by governors and public health administrators.
“At some point, you have to question when the emergency response all of a sudden becomes a complete obliteration of our notions of separation of powers,” said Mr. Eastman.
Gubernatorial emergency authority should last only until state legislatures can reconvene, he said, and “that’s not what’s been happening,” he said.
“We instead have government on auto pilot by a governor and executive doing lawmaking, or worse, unelected officials in the health agencies doing lawmaking,” Mr. Eastman said.
Dr. Atlas ticked off the medical harms during the shutdown: About 650,000 Americans missed their chemotherapy appointments; 85% of organ donation surgeries from living donors were postponed, as were two-thirds of cancer screenings, and about half of those experiencing heart attacks and strokes didn’t call emergency rooms.
“It turned out that everyone was not only stopping intentionally some of the medical care to keep beds free, but they also instilled a lot of fear into the public,” said Dr. Atlas.
The virus has claimed 183,000 U.S. lives, but since its peak in April, the case fatality rate has plunged by 85%. Even so, he said at least 16 states and territories still have travel warnings and quarantine requirements, 18 still have closed bars, and 42 have restaurant capacity limits of 25% or 50%.
The mean U.S. fatality age is 78; 99.8% of U.S. deaths are in people 25 or older, and 80% are over 65. For those under 70, the infection fatality rate is 0.04%, “which is less than or equal to seasonal influenza,” said Dr. Atlas.
“However, the disease is extremely dangerous for those over 70 and particularly with certain comorbidities or underlying conditions,” said Dr. Atlas. “We know the virus will not be eliminated by a lockdown or by isolating healthy people, and the harms from continuing those lockdowns are enormous.”
He said that case numbers will likely increase as social interaction increases, “but the overwhelming majority are now younger, low-risk people, on average decades younger than in the spring. The vast majority do well.”
Ms. MacDonald said that a “mature civilization understands that life is about balancing risks and costs.”
“If saving just one life, as New York Gov. [Andrew] Cuomo said, is worth every single public policy, the speed limit would be set universally on every road at 25,” she said. “Because we are happy to put up with at least 40,000 highway deaths every year knowing those deaths will happen because we value our convenience at getting places faster more.”
Dr. Atlas disagreed with the emphasis on case numbers, saying the focus should be on “protecting the people who are going to have serious harms.”
“The fear is the contagion,” he said. “We are really going to be OK here. I don’t think it’s going to be going on for years. We’ll have cases, but not in pandemic mode.”
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