Jeff Sadow

When wrong about something, some people think becoming more strident and adamant about their mistaken view makes it less likely they’ll be exposed as wrong. Such is the case with Louisiana’s new head public health officer, Dr. Joe Kanter, on state policy concerning the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic.

To date, the heavy-handed response by to it by Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards has produced the worst health outcomes of any state. As of the week’s beginning, the state ranked third in cases per capita and fifth in deaths per capita, far and away the worst combined showing of any state.

The opposite approach has been taken by Sweden. Except for closing tertiary education institutions for a few weeks in the spring and limiting gatherings to 50 for an extended period, its government didn’t impose any economic restrictions. It did exhort people to cover their faces, keep distanced, and restrict interactions with the elderly.

And the results? Louisiana, with its 4.6 million people, has experienced about 180,000 cases and 5,648 deaths. Sweden, a nation of approaching 11 million people, has endured nearly 111,000 cases and 5,933 deaths. At the rate of Louisiana seeing 87 deaths over the past week and Sweden 4, Louisiana will pass Sweden in deaths by the middle of November.

That’s just deaths caused by the virus. Then there’s excess deaths, or those from other causes stemming from unwillingness or inability to treat health problems or depression that spurs substance abuse and suicide. In Sweden, except for April through June, the aggregate death numbers were about the same as the average of the previous five years, with that quarter having a spike upwards coinciding with the virus peak. This means few excess deaths occurred in Sweden since the virus outbreak.

By contrast, Louisiana has seen many more excess deaths. In terms of natural causes, from February through early October, 3,281 more Louisianans died, with a quarter from Alzheimer’s or dementia — exactly the kind of condition exacerbated by isolating nursing home residents as part of Edwards’ restrictions. Neighboring Arkansas, which has maintained fewer restrictions consistently throughout, has over 300 fewer such deaths when compared accounting for its having two-thirds of Louisiana’s population.

And while official statistics for deaths of despair won’t come in until next year, one estimate through the first half of the year put these in Louisiana approaching an additional 200. In fact, one survey revealed that more Louisianans now were suffering more symptoms of depression than in any other state.

Edwards’ poor response illuminated by these data rightly has led to criticism about his approach and the necessity of continuing it, even as he waters it down slightly from time to time, until, as he asserts, vaccine administration occurs. In particular, the Swedish approach displays the superiority of allowing the curve to inflate among the healthy — not many of whom become even mildly sick and almost none of whom die from it — that thins and shortens the tail so as not to put the vulnerable at greater risk for a longer period unlike what Louisiana has done. A number of prominent American scientists and health policy experts agree the strategy generally followed by the state comparatively has failed.

But Edwards rejects the science, and it appears Kanter has done nothing to discourage him from doing so, insisting earlier this month that Edwards “has done a tremendous job.” And in speaking about legislative petitions to cancel Edwards’ restrictions, which can happen in only all-or-nothing fashion, he claimed if Edwards “is hampered, I think it is not a stretch to say that lives will be lost in Louisiana.”

Now, despite the evidence continuing to mount contrary to his view, he’s doubled down. On the eve of the successful petition that went into force last week that curtails Edwards’ emergency powers for a week — which Edwards to date illegally hasn’t acknowledged — Kanter hyperbolically asserted the state would see at least 40,000 more deaths with the (presumably permanent) cancellation of those measures.

Which, of course, makes for a straw man argument. No policy-maker in Louisiana suggests ending all restrictions right this minute forever. What they do want are restrictions closer to the Swedish model — or even like Arkansas’ — which Edwards stubbornly refuses to do. Plus, even if there is, for example, a mask mandate only in environments where adequate spacing can’t be maintained with exceptions for such things as food consumption, many people voluntarily will wear masks anyway.

Edwards has been proven wrong, and his approach has caused needless suffering and cost lives. The increasingly shrill defense of it like Kanter’s reveals more the empirical weakness behind it than bolsters it.

Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University Shreveport. He has studied and written about Louisiana politics for more than a quarter of a century, and authors the blogs Louisiana Legislature Log and the award-winning Between the Lines. He can be reached at jeffsadowcolumn-HannaPub@yahoo.com.

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