DANIEL VAUGHAN: The second COVID-19 wave of threats to public health and liberty

The news of a vaccine hitting the market soon and potentially being widely available to the public by April of 2021 provides the first glimmer of light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel.

But before we reach that moment, we have to deal with the concern that America has entered the second wave of the virus, which threatens more than just our health.

We are testing more during this wave of the virus, which unquestionably impacts the number of new cases. According to the COVID Tracking Project, which pulls its data directly from individual states, the United States is averaging close to 1.5 million tests a day. That’s almost double the number we were running during the summer peak.

Running that kind of volume on tests will end in us capturing things like asymptomatic carriers, false positives and negatives, and people taking multiple tests at a shot. The system isn’t perfect, but as with everything related to this virus, we get slightly better at treating, tracking, and finding it every month.

The problem is that the spike in new cases isn’t just a problem of increased testing. According to Johns Hopkins University, the current seven-day average percentage of tests returning positive has been climbing for weeks.

As I’m writing this, their charts show that nearly 10% of tests are coming back positive nationwide. That’s the highest mark on that metric since the spring when we had no testing capacity. During the summer peak, the worst moments barely came close to hitting 8%. We’re well past that mark now.

Another way to measure whether the virus is worsening is to look at metrics like hospitalizations and deaths. The COVID Tracking Project shows that hospitalizations are headed north of 70,000 active cases. At the same time, deaths have trended above the worst points of the summer.

Both metrics are now worse than they’ve been at any point since the spring. Increases in the number of hospitalized indicate this is more than merely an issue of increased testing.

The concerning part of all these trend lines is that there’s no sign of any of them letting up. It’s unclear when this second wave will break and grant us respite.

The longer the virus endures, ravaging disparate parts of the country every month, the more it endangers more than public health. There’s a balancing act going on here between containing a public health crisis and keeping an eye on government overreach into individual liberties. When the virus first arrived on the scene, and we were dealing with great unknowns in March and April, it made sense for the government to exercise greater control over society.

The longer the virus drags on, however, even at these new peaks, the less clear it is to continue empowering presidents, governors, and mayors with unlimited powers. This point is what Justice Samuel Alito was driving at during his keynote address to the Federalist Society this past week. He said:

The pandemic has resulted in previously unimaginable restrictions on individual liberty. Now, notice what I am not saying or even implying, I am not diminishing the severity of the viruses threat to public health. And putting aside what I will say shortly about a few Supreme Court cases, I’m not saying anything about the legality of COVID restrictions. Nor am I saying anything about whether any of these restrictions represent good public policy. I’m a judge, not a policymaker. All that I’m saying is this. And I think it is an indisputable statement of fact, we have never before seen restrictions as severe, extensive and prolonged as those experienced, for most of 2020.

The point here is plain: the virus poses distinct long-term threats to public health and individual liberties. That threat has always been there. But how you view those threats changes when you’re talking about restrictions for a couple of months versus a year or more. It also changes as we learn more about the virus and the threats it poses.

There are no clear answers here. That’s why I started talking about the genuine second wave surge we’re experiencing right now. And while the vaccine is a great thing to see coming to the market, we will have to survive until it is widespread enough to make the needs for widespread shutdowns unnecessary.

Acknowledging the risks to our civil liberties does not negate the threat the virus poses. These are not things that “science” can answer.

The decisions we make are about what values we believe have more importance in our culture. Saving lives and protecting public health is one of the highest goods a government is supposed to accomplish. However, the threat of viral diseases has been with humanity for our entire existence. We still believed we needed to protect individual rights and liberties in the face of various pandemics.

The COVID-19 second wave surge is real, as is the second wave of threats to our individual liberties. Protecting both public health and civil rights requires constant vigilance.