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With Orange and Wake joining Durham in issuing stay-at-home orders yesterday, everyone in the Triangle is now expected to … just do nothing. Stay home. Work from home (if you still have a job). Watch TV or learn to bake or read a book or corral the kids. Be grateful the ABC stores are still open. Have as little contact with your fellow humans as possible. Try not to lose your mind. Don’t think about how long you’re going to have to live like this. 

Wait … how long are we going to have to live like this? 

That’s a good question. If you listen to the president, a few weeks. If you listen to epidemiologists, a few months is more like it. The economy might not survive the latter, but hundreds of thousands of people might not survive the former. Let’s take a deep dive into the two forces at play.

PUSH: The economy: 3.3 million Americans filed for unemployment last week, which not only beat the previous weekly record but beat it by a factor of about five. To put this in perspective, look at this chart of initial jobless claims going back to 1970.

Keep in mind that many more than 3.3 million people actually lost their jobs. There are lots of people who either didn’t qualify for unemployment—for instance, gig workers, who will be covered under the stimulus bill once it passes—or didn’t bother. In New York, for example, 1.7 million people called about jobless benefits but only 80,000 filed claims. 

The $2.2 trillion stimulus bill—which is, in reality, less a stimulus than survival money—will help, but it’s likely not enough to avoid a recession, and it will tide things over for a couple of months at best: “Mr. Trump said Tuesday that he hoped the economy will be ‘reopened’ by Easter, in two and a half weeks. Public health experts and a wide range of economists say that is both unlikely and inadvisable. The country still lacks widespread testing for the virus, and confirmed infections and deaths continue to climb rapidly.”

Last night, Trump sent a letter to the country’s governors on the new social-distancing guidelines it plans to publish, which would essentially divide counties into low, medium, and high risk, with lower-risk areas relaxing social-distancing measures and restarting economic activity. There are several potential pitfalls to this approach, but I’ll touch on two: 

1. The sluggish U.S. testing regime has improved, but it’s still uneven, which means counties that are designated “low” risk may simply end up being counties without enough tests

2. The White House hasn’t proposed forbidding travel between the low and high-risk counties

PULL: The second is public health. As of yesterday, the U.S. has more coronavirus cases than any other nation on earth, with more than 85,000. We reported more than 14,000 new cases yesterday alone, the most any country has ever reported in a single day. We’ve clocked about 1,300 deaths, and the number of deaths in some of our emerging hot spots—New York, New Jersey, Michigan, Florida—is doubling roughly every two days.

The New York Times has a cool model that estimates how different approaches to containing the coronavirus will have on infections, hospitalizations, and mortality. It’s a model, of course—there’s a lot about the virus we don’t know. But it gives a sense of the kinds of tradeoffs we’re looking at. Play around with it yourself, but I’ll give four examples here. 

A few notes: I set all intervention start dates on March 16, when the president announced his “15 days to slow the spread.” I kept the impact of warm weather, and the rates of infectiousness, hospitalization, and mortality constant and matched the mortality rate (1.4 percent) to about what it’s been in the U.S. among confirmed cases. 

1. Length of Intervention: 15 days (from March 16). Intervention Level: Moderate. Results: 143.7 million people could contract coronavirus through late October, peaking in late May; more than 2 million deaths.

2. Length of Intervention: 30 days (from March 16). Intervention Level: Moderate-Aggressive. Results: 102.6 million people could contract coronavirus through late October, peaking in late June; more than 1.4 million deaths.

3. Length of Intervention: 60 days (from March 16). Intervention Level: Moderate-Aggressive. Results: 48.1 million people could contract coronavirus through late October, peaking in late October; more than 441,300 deaths.

4. Length of Intervention: 90 days (from March 16). Intervention Level: Somewhat Aggressive. Results: 1.8 million people could contract coronavirus through late October, peaking on March 31; more than 441,300 deaths.

WHAT IT MEANS: The results speak for themselves. If you want to snuff out coronavirus, you put in place very aggressive social distancing measures—drive-through testing, closed businesses, ban public gatherings and sports, the works—and you do it for two or three months. The question is whether the economy—not to mention our social fabric—can take that much downtime.  

HISTORICAL CURIOSITY: The day we learned of the largest unemployment jump in American history, the stock market had one of its biggest points gains in history, with the Dow clawing back 1,300 to mark a three-day rally.

WORTH NOTING: Of our local stay-at-home orders, Wake’s, which prohibits “all public and private gatherings of any number of people … occurring outside a single household or residential unit,” seems the most draconian of the bunch.

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