Guest columnist Gordon Grant: Rescind COVID state of emergency — or prove it’s needed

Published: 5/11/2021 4:16:52 PM

The harms caused by the response to COVID-19 are now worse than harm from the virus. More and more people across the country and many more across the world are coming to that conclusion.

Locally, however, a discussion is lacking about the risk-reward calculation or how to make a determination of when/if the emergency can be considered over. At the beginning of the crisis, the Northampton Board of Health erred on the side of caution and declared a state of emergency on March 20, 2020, granting its director authority to act unilaterally, whereby she ordered numerous restrictions and orders governing social and economic activity. The state of emergency remains in place to this day, along with many of its attendant restrictions.

However, at this juncture, it seems appropriate to ask some questions about the response to COVID-19 and its overall impact on our community. One question is whether or not we still face an emergency calling for exercising emergency powers and ordering emergency measures. The Board of Health declaration refers to the “sudden, unexpected occurrence” of COVID-19 as justification for the emergency’s existence.

Fourteen months later, it is difficult to argue that COVID is either “sudden” or “unexpected.” We can also look at the current rate of hospitalizations and death attributed to COVID-19, which has hovered between zero and one per day (closer to zero) in Hampshire County since the beginning of last June.

Many may argue that the number of new cases indicate an emergency still exists, but this argument does not hold up under examination. For one, the death rate in Hampshire County has stayed the same throughout the various spikes and lulls of new cases. There are other problems with such an argument, such as the inappropriate use of polymer chain reaction (PCR) tests to diagnose COVID-19. Suffice to say that “new cases,” most of which are never associated with any symptoms of COVID, are not a useful indicator for the presence of an emergency.

Many more may further argue that Northampton and Hampshire County are faring relatively well because of the restrictions put in place to which we have diligently adhered, but such a claim is debatable based on available research. While there is no shortage of studies seeming to support the COVID-19 measures, the majority of such studies are poorly executed and not peer-reviewed. The more well-done studies generally show a low level of effectiveness.

A recent example is the large Centers for Disease Control study published March 5, 2021 on the impact of masking and indoor dining bans, which was widely touted in the media as proof that these measures are effective. However, the maximum impact on case numbers and deaths shown by the study is only 1.9% and 3%, respectively. Regarding lockdown-related measures, the World Health Organization has advised in multiple reports against the use of such measures after concluding that lockdowns do little to help, while causing massive economic problems that disproportionately impact the poor.

It is crucial to stack the actual level of emergency we are facing with the cumulative harms our community has suffered due to the public health response to COVID-19. In a nutshell, our standard of living and quality of life have deteriorated on multiple levels. Official unemployment is up 300%, business income to the city is down by nearly half and many important businesses are lost forever.

And as is well understood, a damaged economy results in social ills of all kinds: increased substance abuse, domestic violence, child abuse and all levels of mental health disturbance. Current and future physical health has also been affected, as needed medical services have often not been sought due to fear or because they are simply unavailable.

Psychologically, we have been disfigured by relentless messaging of threat, becoming conditioned to fear one another and go against our natural instinct toward connection. Young people have been most harmed, having basically lost a year of their developmental lives. In a widely-publicized CDC study, it was found that a quarter of all American teenagers have seriously considered suicide during the past year.

Given these costs and the minimal threat currently posed by COVID-19, it is difficult to argue that the ongoing state of emergency and restrictions on normal life that flow from it, are justified.

The impact of government money must also be mentioned. Northampton was awarded $2,532,706 through the CARES Act and distribution is scheduled to be completed in June. These funds require an active state of emergency to be in place and for certain types of specified measures be carried out. The question of whether our Board of Health continues to claim a state of emergency to enable the city to receive these funds at least has to be posed.

To my eyes, there is the appearance of a conflict of interest at play. The Board of Health would go a long way toward clearing up this messy question by demonstrating with solid evidence that a state of emergency exists or else rescind its declaration from last March, along with the remaining restrictions which it underpins.

I will be speaking at the May 20 Board of Health meeting to make this case directly.

Gordon Grant is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Northampton.

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