Scientific American Unintentionally Argues Against Lockdowns

OPINION

BY KARL DIERENBACH

How New Mexico Controlled the Spread of COVID-19” was a blushing review of a state making all the right moves in the face of the COVID pandemic. New Mexico Governor Lujan Grisham was the heroic leader, state modelers were the brilliant strategists, and science was their lodestone.  It was September 15 when the love letter to New Mexico’s science-driven success was published by Scientific American.

It was also September 15 when everything started to go wrong for New Mexico.

For months, New Mexico was under the spell of the illusion of control. Governor Grisham locked down New Mexico in March, mandated masks in May, quarantined visitors, and even set up road blocks to limit movement.  After a long initial lockdown, New Mexico opened up slowly, cautiously, and only partially. It was the end of August before New Mexico allowed indoor dining at restaurants, but only up to 25% normal occupancy. All the while, the department of health was issuing a constant stream of public health orders advising New Mexicans to “stay at home and undertake only those outings absolutely necessary for their health, safety, or welfare.” 

But control was all an illusion. Whether due to seasonality, climate, or luck, New Mexico had avoided the fate of its neighbors. Scientific American pointed out how New Mexico’s COVID testing positivity was at 2.3% while Arizona to the west was at 6.7% and Texas to the east was at 8%. Fast forward to November, and New Mexico was at 12.7%, higher than both Arizona and Texas.

As shown in the graph from New Mexico Department of Health, on the day the Scientific American article was published, New Mexico saw one of its best days for COVID hospitalizations. It was about to explode by 650%.  Similarly, cases would go from 137 new cases on September 15 to 1,348 new cases on October 28.

But on September 15, Governor Grisham, New Mexico’s health bureaucracy, and Scientific American were sure New Mexico had controlled the spread of COVID through their science-based actions, and they wanted to tell the rest of the country how they did it.

Accordingly, Scientific American declared that New Mexico’s numbers reflect “what New Mexicans and their government had done to control infections in the previous months.”  Yet if any of this were true, why would cases and hospitalizations then explode?

No one interviewed in the article discussed the possibility of exploding cases. It was written from the perspective of a bureaucracy confident in its control of COVID.

The bureaucracy, which was lauded for having centralized control, included “a team of 150 researchers and clinicians to advise its officials” to implement science-based decisions. New Mexico even created its own models with the help of researchers at Sandia National Laboratories and Los Alamos. The models allowed “policy makers to make forward-looking, evidence-based decisions.”  

In the end, either the models are garbage or New Mexico made the “evidence-based” decision to allow cases and hospitalizations to explode.  Needless to say, it’s the former, and none of the people interviewed for the Scientific American article talked about, knew of, or even considered the possibility of the impending explosion in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. So much for the models.

The models were helpful in one regard: According to Scientific American, they were used “to indicate that larger households, packed into smaller spaces, make it easier for the virus to spread.” Now, I have been criticized for discussing epidemiological data and models despite not being an epidemiologist. My retort has always been that I am basing my arguments on data, not epidemiological knowledge. But in this case, I’m going to put on my epidemiological hat and declare if you’re an epidemiologist and you need to build a computer model to determine that people catch viruses from each other when they are packed into small rooms, you need a refund from your university.

The Scientific American article finished with an ode to science, declaring New Mexico’s decisions as “science-based” and describing how “it’s really exciting to have a governor who values science and evidence.”

Which begs the question–now that the evidence shows New Mexico’s science-based actions to be ineffectual in the face of COVID, will they chart a new course? Will they realize their mitigation efforts were not effective, and when COVID finally came to New Mexico with the start of the cold and flu season, their efforts did little or nothing to stop the spread? Will they rethink their strategy?

Spoiler: the answer is no. On Monday, November 16, Governor Grisham shut down the entire state. No restaurant dining, no gyms, no golf.  

But don’t worry, Grisham said this lockdown will only be for two weeks. That sounds familiar.

It is much more likely that the new restrictions will stay in place until the intensity of COVID naturally wanes, at which time New Mexico bureaucrats will claim it was their latest action that finally stopped COVID – because “Science!”

Karl Dierenbach is an engineer-turned-attorney living outside Denver, Colorado. He writes from a data-driven conservative perspective and is a contributor to the book, “UNASKED 2020: Colorado’s Radical Left Turn and a Warning to America.” Follow him on Twitter, @Dierenbach.