Gov. Jay Inslee has taken drastic but necessary steps to try and slow the spread of the coronavirus in Washington.
In prohibiting gatherings of more than 250 people in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties — the state’s most populous — the governor drove home the threat posed by COVID-19. As of Friday, the state had more than 450 diagnosed cases. Inslee later followed that by ordering the closure of K-12 schools in those counties until at least April 24.
The actions are certain to disrupt lives and increase public concern over the disease. Concerts, sporting events and church services have been canceled. Personal habits such as shaking hands have been altered, and many residents have opted to avoid crowds of any size.
While President Donald Trump has spent weeks attempting to downplay the threat of the virus, Inslee’s proactive actions have demonstrated thoughtful leadership that is needed to best protect public health.
Keep in mind: Coronavirus cases likely are grossly underreported because of a lack of available testing; the virus is highly contagious; and the population has no natural immunity because the strain is new. By the time the scope of the global pandemic is fully understood and assessed, it will be too late for officials to take preventive action.
Most important is Inslee’s effort to tailor restrictions to the facts. Rather than embrace a one-size-fits-all moratorium, he targeted the areas hardest hit by the disease and most at risk. As cases grow in other areas — as of Friday, there had been three confirmed cases in Clark County — the ban on crowds can be expanded as necessary. In contrast, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown issued a statewide prohibition on gatherings of more than 250 people.
All of this is difficult in an unprecedented and constantly evolving crisis. While government must work to protect civil liberties and the right of the people to assemble, it also must weigh those rights against the need to protect public health.
The conundrum is that there will be no telling whether Inslee has made a wise decision. The infection will continue to spread, probably for months; when it finally slows, there will be no way of assessing whether that spread could have been more effectively limited. But failure could be obvious if the virus spreads unabated.
In a way, it is reminiscent of the Y2K problem at the turn of the millennium. Remember that? There was widespread concern that flaws in computer programing would create chaos with arrival of the year 2000. But early warnings gave governments and corporations time to adjust their programming and largely mitigate the problem ahead of time. Critics said that proved it was much ado about nothing; in truth, attention to the issue allowed for a crisis to be avoided.
With the coronavirus, we are well past the early warning stage. But effective management can eventually render the crisis as mild when compared with the most dire predictions.
That would be the best-case scenario for COVID-19, but for now we are facing a great unknown. Stories about an overwhelmed health care system in Italy and other nations should serve as a cautionary tale and demonstrate that extreme measures are, indeed, necessary. So are strict adherence to recommendations from public health experts and attention to personal hygiene.
Inslee’s decision to ban large crowds is a reasonable reaction to a crisis that has no modern equivalent. Erring on the side of caution is a necessary response.