Modeling can be wrong. Although the virus models being used to advise many Texas cities and counties may still predict that the health system in our state will probably be at some point overwhelmed upon reopening, these conclusions are drawn by assuming the model is correct.
The models assume that we avoided overwhelming the system only through an extremely effective, and probably unrealistic, reduction in social interactions. It is at least as likely that the most dire predictions were not, in fact, warranted, and that health care capacity will remain available.
Unfortunately, it appears that the modeling we have seen to date instills more fear in the population than in providing a dispassionate analysis of our situation. A scientific response to the pandemic should involve a careful balancing of all available evidence, along with all the costs of any action.
Science does not call for a single-minded focus on the worst-case scenarios. Science can promote caution, but it should not be used to frighten people into taking certain actions. We must focus on understanding what we really know about the virus and how best to address all the various dangers and disruptions that we face.
It is important to recognize that under the models used to justify the lockdown policy, lockdowns cannot appreciably reduce total infections. They only push infections off into the future. Thus, in the absence of a serious risk of overwhelming health care capacity, it is difficult to see the scientific justification for continuing the extremely costly measures that remain in place across the state and country.
We cannot fall victim to wishful thinking, hoping that if only we keep bearing these costs a little longer, the virus will disappear and no one else will die. Such thinking leads us to pursue excessively costly policies and distracts us from using the best available data to make the smartest judgments about how to proceed.
Scientific studies of coronavirus cases have taught us much about how the virus spreads. There is strong evidence that the virus hits elderly and vulnerable people harder than others. Locking down the entire population instead of protecting the most at risk could lead to more, rather than fewer, deaths.
It seems children play appreciably less of a role in spreading the virus than adults, yet we risk unnecessarily raising the costs of mitigation by closing schools, day cares and summer camps. We will be able to sustain mitigation far longer if we do not impose this heavy cost on parents.
Little evidence exists to support extensive transmission in outdoor settings, yet Austin, Dallas, San Antonio and other Texas cities have closed parks, golf courses and tennis courts, leading people to spend more time indoors and clouding what could be clear messages about what activities vulnerable individuals should avoid.
As economists and statisticians, we have developed measures for evaluating the risk associated with different activities, along with the costs of shutting down these activities. We believe an intelligent deployment of these sorts of measures will allow a relatively safe reopening of important sectors since continued broad lockdowns are not really feasible and will lead to irreversible economic damage. This is absolutely essential, and the scientific debate should move in this direction. With such an approach, we can live with the virus carefully enough to keep our most vulnerable from being exposed.
In that light, Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to begin opening Texas is the right one. Cities and counites across the state should cooperate with the plan and implement it in the most sensible way possible. It is true that we have concerns about some aspects of the reopening based on our reading of the evidence. Potential super-spreader events can undo progress. For example, there is ample evidence that large gatherings such as sporting events, concerts and religious services can generate spread, particularly among vulnerable populations.
But overall, Texas is in a better position than most states and European countries, including many that have begun a reopening process, and it is time to start this process. Frankly, with news that the unemployment rate is the highest since the Great Depression, we have little choice.
Carlos M. Carvalho is a professor of statistics and executive director of the Center for Enterprise and Policy Analytics in the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin.
Richard Lowery is an associate professor of finance in the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin.