Health professionals, national economists urge DeSantis to ‘start over’ to control COVID-19

Friday's map of COVID-19 death rates, as tracked by Johns Hopkins University of Medicine. Florida's trends are improving but some experts predict reopenings will reverse that progress.

As the coronavirus death toll in Florida approaches 12,000, and the national death toll climbs above 186,000, the federation of Public Interest Research Groups, or U.S. PIRG, is calling on governors and the president to “Start Over and Do It Right.”

With COVID-19 trends improving, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis vowed he would never again order a shutdown. But PIRG, a consumer research and advocacy organization, is pushing back, distributing letters from health experts and national economists who say Florida and dozens of others states are not safe enough for reopenings.

Meanwhile, the governor issued an executive order Friday allowing COVID-ravaged Palm Beach County to advance to Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan, reflecting downward trends in new infections. Phase 2, as defined by the governor and his task force on reopening amid the pandemic, allows restaurants and businesses to operate at greater capacity and in-person schooling to resume.

DeSantis himself has been publicly thinking out loud about whether it was wise to restrict nonessential businesses and encourage people to stay home to hinder transmission. He recently brought Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist and advocate of herd immunity who’s been advising the Trump administration, to a coronavirus briefing in Tallahassee, as recounted in this Miami Herald report.

“How long a period of time is that natural for people to do? What are the effects of not having people have more traditional interactions? No one talks about, no one knows that, because it’s never been tried at this level in the United States,” the governor said Thursday during a discussion with brewery owners in St. Petersburg.

Downward trends are encouraging but insufficient, say the 22 economists who signed the U.S. PIRG open letter delivered to DeSantis’ office on Thursday. A similar PIRG letter signed by 1,300 health professionals from around the nation was delivered to DeSantis on Aug. 20.

The World Health Organization sets a reopening benchmark of reducing positivity in COVID-19 testing to no more than 5 percent of the tested population for at least two weeks. As of Friday, Florida’s positivity rate had dipped below 5 percent twice in the past 14 days, according to the Florida Department of Health. It remains higher in hot spots such as Miami-Dade and Broward counties, and lower elsewhere.

The letter signed by the 22 economists says Florida and certain other states cannot reopen safely until the spread of COVID is better under control.

“As experts on economic theory and practice, we have come together to insist that you reconsider your understanding of the economic reality we face. By opening the economy and thus encouraging people to meet up at bars, gyms, restaurants, stores, and other gatherings, we are prolonging the harm. Those meetings drive up disease and therefore deaths,” the letter to DeSantis and other governors says, in part.

Signers of the open letter, from 17 universities and colleges, include James Galbraith of the University of Texas at Austin, Martin Ravallion of Georgetown University, Jerry Green of Harvard University, Donald Davis of Columbia University, Amalia Miller of the University of Virginia, Francine D. Blau of Cornell University, and Debra Ray of New York University.

In their letters, the economists and the 1,300 health experts call for, among other things:

— Greater daily testing capacity, to test all with flu-like symptoms and at least 10 of sufferers’ close contacts; this would require a four-fold increases in Florida’s testing volume.

— A corps of contract tracers large enough to trace all existing cases.

— A supply of personal protective equipment adequate to prevent infection of essential workers including health professionals, emergency responders, and grocery store clerks.

— Income support for people unable to work.

— Moratoria on evictions, foreclosures, and utility cutoffs.

The letter reflects recommendations of preeminent economists including former Federal Reserve Bank chairs Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen, who testified before Congress that the best thing for economic recovery is safety and public health.

“Congress should develop a comprehensive plan to support medical research; increase testing, contact tracing, and hospital capacity; make available critical supplies; and support state and local efforts to safely open businesses, schools, and public transportation,” they co-wrote, as published by the Brookings Institution.

“Nothing is more important for restoring economic growth than improving public health. Investments in this area are likely to pay off many times over.”