Federal documents say ditching social distancing early could kill 300,000

Nurse Anne Boyd (L) and nurse Anthony Napoli (R) check on a patient infected with the COVID-19 disea...
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The federal government and a number of states are trying to end coronavirus restrictions soon, but their rush could be deadly. Federal documents obtained by an investigative nonprofit say that if social distancing guidelines are lifted too early, the coronavirus could kill over 300,000 people. Unfortunately, some experts believe that even those predictions are optimistic.

In partnership with NPR, the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization, outlined documents obtained from the Department of Health and Human Services. The department's "best guess" estimate, per the documents, is that without any mitigation, coronavirus cases and deaths would double about every five-and-a-half days.

The documents were prepared in early April and modeled what might happen if social distancing were abandoned at that point in time. Coronavirus would continue to spread quickly, per HHS's findings. CPI and NPR reported from the documents that, on average, one person with the coronavirus would spread it to another 2.5 people. Of people who become symptomatic, 0.5% would die, the documents predicted.

As shocking as these numbers are, experts think things could be even worse. Juan Gutierrez, a mathematician who produces coronavirus models for San Antonio, told CPI and NPR, "This is just what a rookie would do."

Gutierrez takes issue with the government underestimating how contagious coronavirus is. In addition, Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, said the government isn't accounting for overruns of hospital resources, calling the model "too optimistic".

Hospitals are already experiencing severe shortages of personal protective equipment. In addition, some of the drugs necessary to help treat coronavirus patients, like those used to lessen the pain of ventilation, are running out. Doctors even resorted to requesting states donate their lethal injection drugs.

The documents do predict a worst-case scenario. In that one, up to 1.8 million people could die. And yet, leaked plans show the Trump administration plans to start phasing out social distancing in May.

Despite all evidence pointing towards the need for social distancing to continue, six GOP governors in the South formed a coalition to end lockdowns as early as Friday. That includes in states like Georgia, where gathering places like movie theaters are set to open. This stands in stark contrast to largely Democratic-led coalitions on both coasts and in the Midwest who are opting to take things slow.

While President Trump said he disagreed with Georgia Republican Gov. Brian Kemp's plans to reopen so early, he reportedly had to be convinced to change his stance from supportive. His public disagreement contradicts his own history, too: Trump only reluctantly extended nationwide social distancing to April 30 and has since taken to Twitter to tell his supporters to "liberate" Democratic states.

The rush to lift social distancing guidelines is all about business. That is why Attorney General Bill Barr threatened to sue states who continue social distancing earlier this week. If the government continues with its plans to abandon social distancing early knowing these predictions, it is telling people that 300,000 lives are less important than protecting businesses.