Last week, during a press conference that unveiled Washington’s recovery plan for the coronavirus pandemic, governor Jay Inslee said his social distancing orders were “based on science” and “following the data that we look at every single day.” On Sunday, a New Yorker piece, “Seattle’s Leaders Let Scientists Take the Lead. New York’s Did Not,” applauded local pols for letting lab coat types call the shots throughout the crisis.
But as the state collected praise from around the country for its nerd-centered approach, and Inslee took the first step toward loosening economic restrictions imposed on the region, two modelers reminded us of an uncomfortable truth: Sometimes, listening to science means receiving news you don’t want to hear.
Though Inslee’s current “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order is set to expire on May 4, a pair of local data authorities that the governor uses to make his decisions—the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine and the Institute for Disease Modeling (IDM) out of Bellevue—have published reports that suggest our gathering and non-essential work bans should extend well beyond next Monday. Last week, IHME provided projected date ranges that states could let up on social distancing. Washington’s? May 25 to May 31. Womp womp. And IDM’s latest findings, which arrived on Friday, offered even less welcome guidance. While the state had successfully flattened the curve, it hadn’t crushed it. Even more rigorous social distancing may even be required.
“Without new or strengthened interventions to further reduce the rate of transmission, COVID prevalence will likely only slowly decline and may plateau,” the report says. “Policy action to reduce transmission further may be required to bring daily case counts down before partial relaxation of social distancing policies can occur without substantial risks to the community and healthcare system.”
As Inslee pointed out in his presser, modelers don't profess certainty about their conclusions, only educated estimations. And King County's daily case counts have, encouragingly, dropped. But there's no doubt these less enthusiastic reports will weigh heavily on the governor as he navigates impending public safety and economic pitfalls in what the Seattle Times calls a "thorny path" forward.
You can expect more clarity on that course this week, but you would be wise to hold off on planning that Memorial Day barbecue. "Let me be clear: we are nowhere near ready to reopen broadly," Inslee tweeted Friday after lifting restrictions on low-risk construction work. "To do so now would be incredibly irresponsible and put Washingtonians in danger."