Suppose you are a demographer and you note that there was a baby boom this year:
Demographicus: Births were up 10 percent! In a few years we’re going to need more kindergarten classes.
Skeptico: Pshaw. Kindergarten attendance is down compared to last year.
One year later:
Demographicus: The clock is ticking. We’re still going to need those kindergarten classes.
Skeptico: I don’t see any uptick. In fact, kindergarten attendance is still declining a bit.
Two years later:
Demographicus: Time is getting short. What are we going to do about those kindergarten classes?
Skeptico: There’s still no increase. Stop being a chicken little.
Four years later:
Demographicus: Have you seen the enrollment figures for next year? We need those classes! There’s still time to build them if we act fast.
Five years later:
Demographicus: Where are we going to put all these kids?
Skeptico: No worries. We’ll just throw up some tents or something.
This is the position we’re in with COVID-19 right now. If you have more babies this year, it’s a guaranteed sure thing that in five years you’ll have more kindergarten students even though you’ll see no sign of it in the intervening years. Likewise, if you lift social distancing restrictions, it’s a sure thing that COVID-19 deaths will increase in three or four weeks even though you’ll see no sign of it in the intervening weeks. And as this map from the New York Times shows, that’s exactly what we’re doing:
We’re now a week or two into the Great Reopening and so far everything looks hunky dory. But that’s exactly what you’d expect. We’re still coasting on the lockdowns we put in place in March, and it will take another couple of weeks for the effect of the reopening to start showing up. In the meantime, the skeptics will keep saying that everything is great because the increased spread of the coronavirus is mostly invisible—until suddenly, one day, it isn’t.
We are being idiots. For better advice on what we should do, read this by Marty Makary and this by Alex Tabarrok and Puja Ahluwalia Ohlhaver. Put them together and the basic advice is familiar: combine universal mask wearing with aggressive test-and-trace once an area gets its disease prevalence below 1 percent. Click the links for more details.
UPDATE: More here.