Governor Roy Cooper at lectern

UNC economist critiques Cooper’s ‘misguided coronavirus policy’

Martin Zelder, assistant professor of economics at the University of North Carolina, submits the following (edited only for style):

North Carolina’s Misguided Coronavirus Policy

The May 5 announcement by Gov. [Roy] Cooper of his phased reopening plan is profoundly disappointing to people like me — evidence-based social scientists who care about the collective well-being of our society. The first phase continues the lockdown and entails no real change. It is designated to last 2-3 weeks, followed by a second phase of at least 2-3 additional weeks, and a third phase of at least 4-6 additional weeks. This could leave us still in phase 3 as of July 28 (at best, June 29).

This extraordinarily cautious plan ignores the current evidence — based on my extensive statistical analyses — as to the limited social benefit and high social cost of this continued lockdown. My analysis has identified a number of realities … underlying these limited benefits and high costs.

The relatively low coronavirus infection rate in North Carolina: Among the 51 states (D.C. included) and per capita, North Carolina has the 10th-lowest rate of coronavirus infections in the U.S. And North Carolina was actually fifth-lowest on March 31, the day the lockdown started.

The marked decline over time in the severity of coronavirus (CV) cases in NC: In terms of a number of important measures, the severity of the coronavirus has lessened dramatically. Consider North Carolina’s daily percentage of new coronavirus cases that become hospitalized: This has fallen from 11% on March 31 to 4% on May 3. In fact, my calculations (using https://covidtracking.com) show that … over the last 14 days (April 20 – May 3), there have only been four days when the daily number of new coronavirus hospital admits exceeds the daily number of discharged patients. This means that, on most days, significantly more N.C. coronavirus hospital patients are getting out of the hospital that day than there are new coronavirus patients being admitted to the hospital that day.

The limited value of stay-at-home orders: Many have asserted that the lockdown has made North Carolina’s situation much better than it otherwise would have been. Evidence suggests it’s not so simple. Back on March 31, Day 1 of our Executive Order, North Carolina had a lower infection rate (143 per million population) than did Arkansas (174) and Wyoming (182), who were two of the 11 states that never imposed a statewide stay-at-home order. Almost five weeks later, our rate (1,156) is roughly the same as Arkansas’ (1,147) and slightly higher than Wyoming’s (1,007).

The limited value of extending stay-at-home orders: My careful analysis of North Carolina’s daily new infection rate and how it has changed with each additional lockdown day is informative. In the lockdown’s earlier days (April 11 – 17), I found that each lockdown day was reducing the number of new daily infections by an average of 14 per day. But within the last week (April 27 – May 3), there have been only two days when the lockdown has actually reduced the daily infection rate, and then by only an average of four per day.

The enormous cost of each lockdown day: A recent Moody’s Analytics study found that states with lockdowns were losing roughly 30% of daily gross domestic product each day the lockdown continued. How much is this for North Carolina? North Carolina’s annual GDP of $450 billion means that its daily GDP is $1.2 billion. Taking 30% of $1.2 billion gives us $375 million per day. And this doesn’t capture costs, as a result of social distancing, from multitudes of lost but valuable human interactions, reflected to some degree in the incidence of mental-health problems.

But what about the continued high numbers of daily new coronavirus cases? Skeptics can point to North Carolina’s high rate of daily new coronavirus cases: an average of 405 new cases per day over the last week (April 27 – May 3), rising from 333 the week before and 281 the week before that. My analysis shows that this new-case growth is connected to dramatic increases in testing: The total number of tests given in North Carolina increased April 20–May 3 by 9,200 (or 83%). At the same time, my analysis reveals that the rate of positive tests over the last week is less than 2%.

These seem reasons enough to end our mandated and protracted stay at home.

Mitch Kokai / Senior Political Analyst

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. He joined JLF in December 2005 as director of communications. That followed more than four years as chie...

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