Someone in Dan Forest’s campaign should really cut off his access to Twitter before he embarrasses himself more than he already has. 

Last week, Forest, champion of the COVIDiots, stumbled upon a month-and-a-half-old Bloomberg story—no one’s ever accused him of being up on the latest science—referencing an Italian study that found that 99 percent of those who died of COVID-19 had other health conditions. 

Dan Forest had thoughts about that.

“If this same trend exists in NC, the Governor has no moral, ethical or rational justification for his current strategy,” Forest wrote, referring to Governor Cooper’s three-phase plan to lift ease social distancing guidelines over the next two months. 

About that study, which Forest definitely didn’t read, because it’s in Italian, and, let’s be honest, he seems to have a difficult enough time with English: It analyzed 355 of 2,003 coronavirus fatalities in Italy at the time and found that 99 percent of them had one or more preexisting pathologies such as high blood pressure (75 percent), diabetes (35 percent), heart disease (33 percent), cancer within the last five years (20 percent), renal failure (18 percent), and COPD (13 percent). 

Aside from the fact that the study occurred relatively early in Italy’s pandemic—more than 27,000 Italians have died of COVID-19 since then—that so many had comorbidities isn’t surprising. The average age of those who had died in Italy, after all, was 79.5. Eighty-year-olds tend to have preexisting medical conditions, and individuals with preexisting medical conditions are at greater risk of death from COVID-19. 

But Dan Forest has already shown us that he’s not exactly a public health expert. Nor, for that matter, is he a business expert. So now, let’s analyze his claim to superior morality, ethics, and rationality than the incumbent he is trying to unseat. 

Specifically, what Forest appears to be arguing by saying that there is “no moral, ethical, or rational justification” for a policy that slow-walks a return to the post-pandemic normal is that because COVID-19 is only killing those who already have other illnesses, there is no justification for shutting down the state’s economy to protect their lives. (That’s an oddly Darwinian argument for a fundamentalist, but we digress.) 

But who are these people who Forest considers worthy of sacrificing to the gods of capitalism? More than half of the state, as it turns out.

According to a new report from the state Department of Health and Human Services, about 51 percent of North Carolina residents “are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19 based on being 65 or older, having at least one of the underlying health conditions, or both. … An estimated 42% of people in North Carolina has one of the underlying health conditions included in the CDC’s guidance on people at high risk for a severe illness from COVID-19.”

Among those over the age of 65, 56 percent of residents have at least one of these underlying conditions. Among those aged 50–64, 49 percent do. 

To answer the question posed in Forest’s tweet, at least 75 percent of those who have died in North Carolina had underlying health conditions, which, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, include chronic lung disease, cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, kidney disease, liver disease, and immunosuppressive conditions such as cancer treatment, smoking, and other immune disorders. 

That’s not as high a percentage as in Italy, but we don’t have as old a population, either. 

There’s a tradeoff between jumpstarting a stalled economy and saving lives, and different models will give you different projections about what that might look like. The Wharton-Penn Budget Model, from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Business School, projects various scenarios for how decisions about when and how to reopen states will affect both health care and economic outcomes.

For North Carolina—as I explored in this morning’s Primer—the best-case scenario in terms of public health, in which current social-distancing rules and norms are maintained, predicts 830 deaths through June 29 and an 11 percent GDP contraction. 

The best-case economic scenario, in which the state allows businesses to fully reopen and people begin to return to pre-pandemic social-distancing norms, forecasts 9,773 deaths and an 8.2 percent GDP contraction by June 29. 

If this model is correct, the question facing state leaders is whether 9,000 lives is worth 3 points of GDP. 

Forest, of course, doesn’t say that he thinks the elderly and vulnerable are expendable. Rather, he says he’d allow rural counties and healthy people to do as they please while quarantining the sick and vulnerable: “We know the demographics of the people that are hospitalized and the people that are dying. And I think we need to let the healthy folks get back to their livelihoods and allow freedom to reign again in America.”

It’s not entirely clear how Forest plans to successfully segregate the old and sick from the rest of us, considering that COVID-19 is already tearing through the state’s nursing homes. Nor is it clear how he plans to convince the coronavirus to mind county borders; after all, experts see COVID-19 taking aim at often ill-prepared smaller communities next.

Actually, it’s not clear that Forest has a plan for anything beyond letting some counties open up and rolling the dice. 

The overwhelming consensus among the medical community is that reopening the country now, while the virus is still spreading, is a risky gamble designed to, as John Cassidy writes in The New Yorker, “get the economy going before the November election without sparking a big new wave of infections.”

“Perhaps it will succeed: no one can say for sure either way,” Cassidy continues. “But if it doesn’t work out well, and the new projections for the spread of the virus prove to be accurate, the weakest and most vulnerable members of American society will be the ones who bear the heaviest cost.”

That’s 51 percent of North Carolina, and Forest thinks a reopening strategy that prioritizes their health is morally and ethically unjustifiable. 

Just a thought here, but maybe Dan Forest would be better off if he stopped trying so hard to be relevant. 


Contact editor in chief Jeffrey C. Billman at jbillman@indyweek.com. 

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