On March 16th, 2020 Ohio Governor Mike DeWine granted an interview to Scott Halasz, a career journalist with the Xenia Daily Gazette. In that interview, the Governor disclosed a number of candid thoughts on his decision-making process regarding COVID-19.
The Governor confided that dealing with a pandemic was not something that he could have anticipated. Thus, he had to draw upon his decision-making experience over 40 years of public service. “My experience has been when you have all the facts, and the facts are right, you generally make the right decisions. I’ve been really focused on getting the facts. This is not any area of my expertise at all.”
The Governor turned to a best-selling book by John M. Barry titled, The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. DeWine claimed he used Barry’s historical novel about the Spanish Flu as an outline for how he should govern in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. He particularly noted the need for “aggressive decisions” based on a single example from that catastrophic pandemic.
In 1918 “Liberty Loan” campaigns were held across the nation to raise money in support of the World War I efforts. On September 28th, 1918, the city of Philadelphia conducted a large Liberty Loan parade at the same time the Spanish Flu epidemic was beginning to hit the American civilian population. Days after the parade over 12,000 Philadelphians contracted the Spanish Flu. At the same time the city of St. Louis chose to cancel their Liberty Loan parade. The influenza still hit that city but only 700 people were affected.
For Governor DeWine this example, as well as the advice of experts who “model” pandemics led him to believe that there are “small windows” in dealing with pandemics that require “drastic actions before it is too late.” Thus, the Governor launched a series of decisions resulting in the lockdown of Ohioans and a shutdown of the state’s economy. Now months after those early decisions a series of questions must be asked regarding their effect and consequences.
There are quite a few lessons from Barry’s analysis of the 1918 pandemic that the DeWine strategy clearly missed. The first and most important lesson from 1918 as well as the pandemics of 1957 and 1968 is that humans cannot hide forever from an infectious flu-type virus. There are three ways humans interact with a virus. The first is to get the disease, survive it and then develop antibodies against future infection. The second is to develop a vaccine. The third is to die from the virus. No one from 1918 until this hour has yet to establish a fourth reality.
The DeWine strategy also missed the lesson of rightly discerning the physical threat of COVID-19, especially compared to the 1918 pandemic. About the same time after the Governor’s interview with the Xenia Daily Gazette was published, Dr. Andy Pekosz a virologist at Johns Hopkins University appeared on a webinar stating four times that COVID-19 is a “mild disease” with “mild symptoms” for the vast majority of people. Somehow the Ohio team and most of the President’s Task Force all missed this memo. For weeks they were all referencing 1918 and the Spanish Flu. But the evidence was clear from early 2020, COVID-19 is not the Spanish Flu. Young people were devastated by the flu virus of 1918. The symptoms were horrible, and the death toll was 625,000 out of a total U.S. population of about 100 million.
After millions of COVID-19 cases worldwide it is now an established fact that Dr. Pekosz was correct. So far, the symptoms of COVID-19 are so mild that millions have experienced the disease, overcome it, and have developed immunities. Those people are now part of a growing immune sector of the culture that provide a barrier of resistance against further viral spread. Dr. Pekosz made his assessment within hours of Governor DeWine’s aggressive decisions to base his policies on the history of the far more deadly viral model from 1918.
“I took these actions because I knew from all the data they will in fact save lives” Governor DeWine told the Xenia Daily Gazette. Those actions included presenting four consecutive models that predicted a rapid, even terrifying spread of COVID-19 and attending deaths. Ohioans were immediately subjected to a media campaign of fear and manipulation all directed toward the absolute necessity of “flattening the curve” of viral exposure in the general population. But the DeWine strategy missed an essential point that was obvious from evidence across the whole world: COVID-19 is highly dangerous to the elderly especially those with pre-existing morbidities. Therefore, it was essential that every effort be made to prioritize the protection of the elderly and those already quite sick. Ohio missed that “small window”. Months later it was revealed that over 50% of Ohio COVID-19 deaths occurred to patients and workers in nursing and long-term care facilities and populations incarcerated in prisons. That fact was hidden from public disclosure for months.
Another set of figures has been hidden by the DeWine Administration. The notes, conversations and basic math utilized by the Ohio Department of Health and Ohio State University to build a series of models and projections on the spread of COVID-19 are public records but have been hidden from public review by the DeWine Administration. According to the law, the ODH and the University must disclose those records to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. The American Policy Roundtable made exactly such a request in 2020 and was denied. The ODH claimed they were granted special immunity from all FOIA requests for the balance of the pandemic. No one may see the math that built a series of models that were used to manipulate public policy, shut down businesses and breathe panic into the population. Almost none of the predictions of those models proved to be anywhere close to reality and no one is being held accountable for the errors.
Governor DeWine took his aggressive actions because he was certain “from all the data” that his actions would save lives. One of those actions was to close all Ohio hospitals to elective surgeries. This was designed to protect the hospitals from the “surge” of COVID-19 patients predicted by the inaccurate models. So Ohio hospitals sat empty and patients were denied urgent examinations and care and hospitals across the state began bleeding out red ink and laying off health care professionals. The predicted surge never appeared.
The DeWine strategy continues to this day. Turning back to 1918 once more the Governor has taken to prescribing mandatory masks as a means of stopping COVID-19. He has constructed an assessment tool whereby each county is rated in relation to COVID-19. If the number of cases and other indicators get “too hot” the Governor mandates punitive measures against the people of that county. A number of counties have hit the “red zone” on the Governor’s color scheme and people there must wear a mask when leaving their home or face criminal penalties. Should cases continue to rise in those counties the threat of recurring lockdowns are looming. But the Governor’s models are again missing the mark. Because the vast majority of cases of COVID-19 are not deadly and patients are fully recovering there is no need to panic and attempt to shut down everything and stop the spread. First of all, it is scientifically impossible to do so. Secondly, except for the most vulnerable, it is not medically necessary to use extreme measures for diseases with non-extreme symptoms and outcomes. If such were the case, the Governor would have to declare a state of medical emergency every year at flu season.
The ironies here are extraordinary when compared to 1918. In The Great Influenza John Barry cites many lessons learned from America’s bout with the Spanish Flu. “One tool of no use” says Barry, “is widespread quarantine” as in lockdowns. Another is the use of masks. Barry states “Surgical masks are next to useless except in very limited circumstances, chiefly in the home”.
The evidence is clear: 2020 is not 1918. COVID-19 is not the Spanish Flu. Today America has many more hospitals that actually have full electricity, running water, and a host of major medical devices and staff that were not even imagined in 1918. A great number (at least 20% by most accounts) of Spanish Flu patients died not from the flu but from bacterial pneumonia. There were no antibiotics to solve that problem in 1918. We have those antibiotics today. Most significantly, COVID-19 is not nearly as deadly for the vast majority of people as was the Spanish Flu.
Barry concludes his work with a sober admonition to contemporary leaders facing future pandemics. “Those in authority must retain the public’s trust. The way to do that is to distort nothing, to put the best face on nothing, to try to manipulate no one. Lincoln said that first and best. A leader must make whatever horror exists concrete. Only then will people be able to break it apart.”
The DeWine COVID-19 strategy in Ohio missed the mark by about 100 years. In spite of all the evidence to the contrary, Governor DeWine is refusing to modify his strategic approach. It is clear the Governor has broken trust with the people of the Buckeye state. Governor DeWine has served as a state legislator, prosecutor, U.S. Senator and Ohio Attorney General. He should be most familiar with the rule of law. In spite of all that experience he has seized upon a thin line of quarantine law written over 100 years ago and manipulated it into a platform of control over every Ohio household, business and individual in the state.
The worst of it all is this, the Governor has systematically shut out the Ohio Legislature from this entire process. He cancelled an election in March of 2020, an action that only can be done by the elected legislature. He has crashed the state budget established and controlled by the legislature. He has threatened to veto every measure the legislature is debating to curtail his ascending powers. He has governed by denying the people the right to a constitutional representative form of government. He has chosen to quarantine himself from what Ohioans are saying from ice cream shops, baseball fields, barber shops and local pubs, from churches and schools to city halls. Governor DeWine’s strategy has failed to retain the public trust. Surely the Governor meant well at the start but half a year later, the Ohio strategy is still missing the mark by about 100 years. Therefore, it is time for the Legislature to step in and do what they should have done from the start: stop the panic, reform quarantine laws and protect the liberties and economic opportunities of every Ohioan.