Virus experts should admit mistakes

David MoonBlog

When recently asked to speculate when the COVID-19 case count might support fully reopening his state’s economy, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo offered a candid response. “All the early national experts [were saying], ‘here’s my projection model; here’s my projection model.’ They were all wrong. They were all wrong.”

That’s okay; people make mistakes, especially in rapidly changing complex systems. I speak with much personal experience in this regard. If an investor lets his ego attach to his decisions, he is likely to compound his loss by denying the mistake or changing his premise.

The same is true of epidemiologists and the officials relying on their research. They made mistakes. Huge ones. As long as they pretend otherwise, their credibility rightly suffers.

Experts told us that even with mitigation efforts, 6,900 Knox Countians would be hospitalized with COVID-19. Cumulative hospitalizations as of June 1 were 43. Don’t insult my common sense and tell me that difference is the result of outstanding compliance with masks and physical distancing.

In assessing the current state of the pandemic, it seems that the best measures (and only available quality data) are hospitalizations and deaths. Asymptomatic carriers create potential future demands on the healthcare system, but to-date, their victims haven’t overburdened our local hospitals.

A friend in Pensacola asked me why Knox County’s death and hospitalization rates are so much lower than in Escambia County, Florida. Was it the result of well-organized and unified leadership from our elected officials? (I laughed. She obviously doesn’t understand Knoxville.)

It’s not population density; Knox County is twice as densely populated as Escambia County, FL. It’s not age or race related, as those demographics are almost identical. Pensacola hospitals might be more aggressive in hospitalizing COVID-19 patients, but that wouldn’t explain differences in death rates.

As far as I can tell, no one knows why there are more serious cases in one city than another.

As long as officials tell us that our low hospitalizations are the result of mass compliance with safer-at-home orders and 6-feet privacy bubbles, there is a large segment of the population who will roll their eyes. These people are not, as one local columnist condescendingly described, science skeptics. These include common sense folk who know the difference between a rainstorm and a dog mistaking a human leg for a fire hydrant.

University of Oxford researchers studied the mitigation efforts and COVID-19 deaths in European countries, finding “little correlation between the severity of a nation’s restrictions and whether it managed to curb excess fatalities.”

In other words, we don’t completely know what flattens the curve. I applaud those who, like Governor Cuomo, admit it.

David Moon is president of Moon Capital Management. A version of this piece originally appeared in the USA TODAY NETWORK.