Every crisis has a self-reflection point. Six weeks into the coronavirus pandemic, we now have data and information available. We have seen the face of the enemy. Tragically, lives have been lost to the virus, but many victims have survived, and even more Americans have remained healthy through it all. It is time to begin examining what we have done and whether, with the benefit of hindsight, we were right to do it. As I reflect, I come to an inescapable conclusion: Someone must be held accountable.
Who could have ever imagined that, in a shockingly brief period, our economic growth and prosperity would come to a grinding halt? Historically low rates of unemployment have reversed as 22 million Americans have filed jobless claims, meaning that roughly 13.5% of our nation’s entire labor force is out of work. Businesses that were hiring and expanding are now in danger of closing their doors forever. Stock markets that were skyrocketing are now volatile and uncertain. America’s optimism has seemingly evaporated, and our prosperity is imperiled.
The obvious culprit of this economic calamity is the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). However, the real culprit is a more complicated mix of fear, misinformation, and inaccurate models. Based on the word of our experts, we shut down the United States on a previously unimaginable scale. Public health experts, scientists, and government officials all warned that millions would die unless strict measures were put in place. We were cautioned that, even with our extraordinary efforts, hundreds of thousands of Americans would likely die. So, we willingly took unprecedented steps to save the most vulnerable among us, even at the cost of wreaking unparalleled economic damage. The experts said it was necessary, that the coronavirus was especially deadly, and our medical systems were in danger of being overwhelmed.
Now, weeks into the pandemic, the dire outcomes foretold by experts have failed to come to pass. The models used to justify the closure of society have been shown to be wildly inaccurate. Take, for example, Neil Ferguson. A British epidemiologist at Imperial College London, Ferguson was an instrumental voice in supporting the global shutdown. In mid-March, he released a model predicting more than 2.2 million deaths in the United States and 500,000 in the United Kingdom. Even in a more optimistic scenario, he predicted that the death toll would still be 1.1 million in the U.S. and 250,000 in the U.K. Numerous government officials have cited Ferguson’s dire report as one of the primary justifications behind the shutdown. Now, a month after Ferguson released his figures, we can see that his model was wrong. There have been approximately 41,000 deaths in the U.S. and 16,500 in the U.K. – far short of the doomsday predictions. Ferguson himself has dramatically changed his tone, saying he is now “reasonably confident” that the medical systems can manage the flood of coronavirus patients. Yet, the policies implemented in response to Ferguson’s model remain in place.
Another key guide for policymakers has been the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) model. The White House Coronavirus Task Force relied on the IHME model to estimate 100,000 to 240,000 American deaths even with strict mitigation measures in place. In the weeks since, however, the IHME model has been dramatically revised numerous times. The model’s worst-case scenario projection of total COVID-19 deaths in the United States dropped from 178,000 to 136,000 to 60,145 – in just one week’s time. For the sake of comparison, 60,000 deaths is in range for the Centers for Disease Control estimates of an average influenza season. We need to examine how it is possible for such an instrument to be so inaccurate. We should expect models to be updated to reflect new information and trends, but these extreme revisions have yet to be explained. After all, the earlier high death estimates assumed full social distancing and accounted for the country’s shutdown. So, what happened? Amazingly, the mainstream media continues to highlight the IHME model while neglecting to tell audiences that the model has been proven radically unreliable.
We need to come to terms that all of us – government officials, media outlets, health workers, and average citizens – put our faith in these models and the experts who created them. President Donald Trump, who has demonstrated tireless strength, vision, and transparency throughout this pandemic, relied on these models. The best and brightest minds in public health warned him that millions would die if he failed to heed the projections. The president’s handling of the pandemic has been rock-solid, but his responses have been based on the same flawed models and incorrect information that the rest of us have been following.
Now is the time to ask tough questions and demand truthful answers. We need to examine why the models failed us, why their creators have been so far off the mark, and why these projections were used to justify policies that have resulted in unparalleled economic disruption. Ultimately, we must ensure this debacle never repeats itself. My Republican colleagues and I on the House Committee on Oversight & Reform have already requested that Democrats cooperate with us to hold hearings and begin an investigation. I strongly encourage Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her House Democrats to join us in a bipartisan quest for discovery. Now, more than ever, we need answers, and those who were wrong must be held accountable.