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Not Locking Down America Kills People. So Does Locking Down America.


The issues around the COVID lockdown are complicated. Even outside of America completely–and predictably–blowing its opportunity to manage this disease, life does have to go on. Because when life doesn’t go on, it also kills people.

The bodies have been arriving at Anahi Ortiz’s office in frantic spurts — as many as nine overdose deaths in 36 hours. “We’ve literally run out of wheeled carts to put them on,” said Ortiz, a coroner in Columbus, Ohio.

In Roanoke County, Va., police have responded to twice as many fatal overdoses in recent months as in all of last year.

In Kentucky, which just celebrated its first decline in overdose deaths after five years of crisis, many towns are experiencing an abrupt reversal in the numbers.

Nationwide, federal and local officials are reporting alarming spikes in drug overdoses — a hidden epidemic within the coronavirus pandemic. Emerging evidence suggests that the continued isolation, economic devastation and disruptions to the drug trade in recent months are fueling the surge.

Because of how slowly the government collects data, it could be five to six months before definitive numbers exist on the change in overdoses during the pandemic. But data obtained by The Washington Post from a real-time tracker of drug-related emergency calls and interviews with coroners suggest that overdoses have not just increased since the pandemic began but are accelerating as it persists.

Suspected overdoses nationally — not all of them fatal — jumped 18 percent in March compared with last year, 29 percent in April and 42 percent in May, according to the Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program, a federal initiative that collects data from ambulance teams, hospitals and police. In some jurisdictions, such as Milwaukee County, dispatch calls for overdoses have increased more than 50 percent.

Dealing with COVID is a policy issue, just like everything else. It requires tough decisions. Either way, people will die or have their lives so overturned that it will be as bad or nearly as bad as people who suffer long-term consequences of the virus. The rise of depression and loneliness, the inability to see family, rising domestic violence rates, delayed child development, increased educational disparities, rising alcoholism, drug overdoses, etc, The price of locking down is real. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t lock down–a bit like the debates over using the military for direct action strikes or drone strikes, we are killing people either way in the name of national security and accepting a level of death in doing that–but it does mean that is is actually really complicated in ways that a lot of people aren’t really reckoning with, both those who want everyone to stay inside until there’s a vaccine because they don’t want people to die and idiots like Trump and DeSantis who just don’t care if people die.

Quite obviously the answer is not total lockdown or no lockdown. It’s a complex balance based around the best science we have on medicine combined with the insights of both scientists and social scientists on the larger societal and health impacts. Having seen our university’s plans for reopening, let’s just say that I’m glad it’s not my job to figure this out. But people should recognize this complexity and when it comes to, say, K-12 this year, understand that either way, there are going to be problems with significant and long-term impacts.

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