Where did the ideas for shutdowns and social distancing come from?

Steve Kelman offers another story about hero civil servants (and a good president).

big data AI health data

The New York Times recently ran on its front page (some blog readers may remember that I am a dinosaur who still reads a newspaper in hard copy – even more so now with so much time at home to peruse it while drinking my breakfast coffee) a story about how shutdowns and social distancing emerged as the preferred strategy for dealing with a disease outbreak like the coronavirus.

The story begins in 2005 with President George W. Bush. Already concerned about bioterrorism after 9/11, Bush in 2005 read a new book about the Spanish flu epidemic. This was the time of the avian flu outbreak in Asia, a disease spreading from animals to humans where there was no vaccine. Bush set in motion an effort to come up with ideas for dealing with a similar problem at home, convening an advisory group that included a White House bioterrorism advisor and a Department of Veterans Affairs doctor.

This group developed a proposal for an idea that, the Times article says, “they knew would be treated like a piñata … telling Americans to stay home from work and school the next time the country was hit by a deadly pandemic.”

The conventional wisdom at the time was that “after decades of advances by the pharmaceutical companies… no matter what the ailment there must be some kind of available fix. Locking your family inside your home seemed backward, and encouraging people not to go to work economically disastrous.”

Not surprisingly, when the idea came out there was also significant pushback, with one doctor involved in the effort arguing the government should “tough it out” and work quickly to develop a vaccine. “Caught in the middle,” the article states, Centers for Disease control officials “decided to conduct more research and survey community leaders around the country.”

That further work led to the CDC back in 2007 endorsing the distancing/shutdown approach, dubbed “non-pharmaceutical interventions,” as official government policy. After a five-year review within the Obama administration – which was absolutely not asleep at the pandemic wheel; that contention applies instead to the current administration – this policy was updated and reaffirmed.

I see four distinct lessons in this story. First, we had a president, George W. Bush, who cared about something besides headlines and quick hits. Especially given the attacks at the time on Bush’s intelligence – and the view that presidents care only about the immediate and the short term -- this is a very reassuring statement about the commitment of many presidents to the public good. (Bush even, contrary to the characterizations at the time, read some nerdy books.) Critics of democracy around the world say that our political system won’t generate such individuals at the top. That’s not what happened here.

The second lesson – which I had highlighted in an earlier blog post about ventilators – is that one of the many things a good career civil service provides is a cadre of experts who are thinking about low-visibility problems when few others are. This again happened here. At the time of the effort, a pandemic was a low-visibility problem, though the avian flu meant it wasn’t totally off the radar. The Bush administration brought in a VA doctor and a White House biodefense advisor to head the effort.

The third lesson is that expertise is extremely helpful. The advisors “soon found themselves measuring the width of the standard school bus seat and the average classroom size in the United States.” This led them to conclude that ­­­­ schools would need to close to inhibit spread. The doctors involved in the effort did research on the 1918 pandemic to look at the relationship between the extensiveness and timing of shutdown efforts and the death toll. Both “came to the same conclusion and published papers on their findings within months of each other in 2007. Early, aggressive action to limit social interactions…was vital to limiting the death toll.”

The fourth lesson is that, contrary to the assumptions of many, groupthink did not prevail here. Despite initial skepticism, advocates of the crazy new approach persisted with their views. The article notes that the Bush administration encouraged those promoting the new idea “to keep at it and follow the science.”

As with my earlier story about ventilators (though for a different reason), this story did not have happy ending. Sadly, the Trump administration delayed much too long in following the suggestion of the experts, making our slow response a laughingstock around the world. That response not only has resulted in unnecessary deaths but also severely damaged the worldwide credibility of the U.S.

China, by contrast, has gained credit for a forceful response despite initial delays due to a coverup of early information about the virus, because China's effort was delayed much less than ours and did prove successful. It wasn’t for lack of trying by our experts.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.