On June 26, North Carolina is scheduled to move into the third and final phase of Gov. Roy Cooper’s plan for reopening the economy after the coronavirus response shutdown. As of the governor’s June 18 press conference, Cooper indicated that the decision had not been made as to whether or not the state would proceed into Phase 3 as planned.
Less than two weeks ago, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen indicated that the state may have to move backwards in the reopening phases if the state’s coronavirus rates continue to increase. At the June 18 press conference, Cooper alluded to a forthcoming “comprehensive plan to slow the spread of the virus” which he said will accompany the phase announcement. If we move into Phase 3 but are given requirements – such as a mask mandate – that have not been in any of the previous phases, are we really moving forward?
The Cooper administration insists that decisions about phase movement or new restrictions are being made only by looking at the data related to the state’s coronavirus condition. If that is the case, the big question becomes: What are the thresholds for moving forward and backwards in North Carolina’s reopening phases? The answer coming from the Cooper administration seems to be: we can’t tell you.
Is this lack of transparency a result of willful silence – i.e. “We know, but don’t want to publicly say for political reasons” – or incompetence – i.e. “We don’t know and have been unwilling to devote the resources to a best guess.”
During the governor’s June 12 news conference, ABC11 news reporter Jonah Kaplan asked the governor directly: “What is the threshold for going or staying in Phase 2, or pivoting back to Phase 1?” Kaplan gives some examples, then asked a second question related to the level of concern over rising COVID-19 positive cases in the context of the dramatic increase in testing.
You can watch the response from Cooper and Cohen here. I include Cohen’s full response to both questions since it is not definitively clear when she moves from answering one question to the next.
(In the June 18 press conference nearly a week later, another reporter asked a similar question and was given a similar answer. See time stamp: 17:02)
The overall message from Cooper and Cohen is the same: we can’t say because we don’t have thresholds for the individual metrics because we have to consider the full picture.
As a policy analyst, this answer doesn’t sit right with me. Any policy decision is (hopefully) made with the consideration of multiple, sometimes conflicting, factors. There are methods to quantify outcomes in a way that lends itself to taking multiple factors into account in decision-making processes.
Following the Cooper administration’s coronavirus response closely, something that has stuck out to me is Cooper’s insistence that data is driving their decisions about closing and reopening the state’s economy. After immense pressure for a detailed reopening plan, the administration finally released seven data points that they are using to determine the state’s coronavirus threat levels. However, to my knowledge the most detail the public has been given about the interpretation of the data points is green check marks, yellow lines, red X’s, and arrows pointing in the direction the trend is going.
This incredibly vague measurement system speaks to trend directions, but seems to rely mainly on the whims of the administration. For example, in the June 12 press conference, three of the four metrics were “yellow lines” seeming to represent neutral growth, while one was a negative “red X.” Where is the distinction between the two categories, and if all of the indicators move to the red, will the state move backwards in phases?
The Cooper administration is clearly aware of the data – although perhaps not all of the relevant data that one would hope – and seems to be using it to influence their rhetoric. But I have yet to see evidence that the data itself is actually driving the phasing decisions. If it were, surely the administration could provide us with at least a general idea of the “tipping point” for each of the metrics.
“Flattening the curve” was intended to prevent the state’s medical capacity from being overwhelmed by coronavirus patients. In response to a question about the “tipping point” for hospital capacity, the administration couldn’t or wouldn’t give an answer (see video here, time stamp 25:11). Again, I have to wonder if it is willful concealment or genuine confusion.
It is not to say that these are not tough questions. It is only to say that they are not unanswerable questions.
Below, I have devised an example of the type of chart or system we might expect to see from an administration that was truly using only the data to make decisions about moving the state forward or backwards through the phased reopening.
This chart is not filled in because it admittedly would take a lot of time and access to data in order to do so. With the health experts and data that Cooper so often references in his press conferences, making and filling in a similar system should be relatively easy to accomplish.
My model includes many more factors than the number that the Cooper administration says that it is using to make its decisions – I took a “kitchen sink” approach to constructing the model, although the administration could curate or supplement the list as appropriate. One could also modify the chart by giving each variable a “point” assignment and using a point system to determine movement in phases.
The chart is meant to serve as an example of how a system could be constructed, and any system that is put in place would have limitations. But the point here is that the Cooper administration has yet to give the public a clear look at any details their decision-making process that they insist is data-driven.
For politicians, the problem with transparency is that your missteps come more clearly into public view. The people of North Carolina deserve to know not just WHAT data is being used to make decisions, but HOW that data is being used. If the Cooper administration cannot produce the thresholds, or even estimations of the thresholds, that they are using to make decisions, it suggests that such thresholds may not exist.