John McClaughry: Coronavirus pandemic lessons

Editor’s note: This commentary is by John McClaughry, the vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

The final chapter in the coronavirus pandemic story won’t be written for a distressingly long time, but it’s worth leaping ahead in time and looking back at what Americans and Vermonters will hopefully have learned.

The world was ill prepared for a global pandemic. Since the Spanish flu (so called) killed 50 million people in 1918-19, Americans have come to believe that pandemics occur in Asian cities and African jungles. As columnist George Will pointed out last week, “in 1900, about when medicine at last began to do more good than harm, 37% of all American deaths were from infectious diseases. Today, the figure is 2%. By 1940 and the arrival of penicillin, medicine seemed on the verge of conquering infectious diseases, especially smallpox. No human achievement has done as much to lessen human suffering.”

Public health measures, clean water, antibiotics, vaccines, and vector control, that we Americans take for granted, deserve enormous credit for bringing about a healthier population. But we’ve grown complacent about the threat of pandemics, and now have suddenly relearned the need to take notice of the serious dangers they pose.

Our complacency is starkly exhibited by the fact that we don’t have a widely accepted treatment for knocking back the coronavirus. Medical providers isolate victims, provide symptomatic relief, treat secondary complications, and hope that the patient’s immune system rallies to overcome the viral invasion. But these measures do not add up to a cure.

Three years ago I wrote a commentary on “Four Widely Ignored Threats.” My fourth concern (after fiscal collapse, asteroid impact, and electromagnetic pulse) was “the threat of an epidemic like the 1918 Spanish flu that killed millions of people worldwide. The heavy use of antibiotics threatens to produce mutated ‘superbugs’ that can defeat antibiotics. The FDA is offering incentives to drug companies to find new antibiotics, but this is probably a losing race. … There are non-pharmaceutical alternatives that deserve modern reexamination, but ‘official medicine’ shows little interest.”

That last statement still holds true. The U.S. medical profession is uncomfortable making use of non-FDA approved treatments, and wary of retribution by frowning licensing boards and hungry malpractice lawyers. Intravenuous Vitamin C and ultraviolet blood irradiation are examples. We need to give every anti-viral treatment a fair and rigorous test, at public expense. Now is an excellent time, with thousands testing positive for coronavirus.

A similar problem lies in testing for the coronavirus. Reason’s Robby Soave writes that:

“Co-Diagnostics’  COVID-19 test, which costs just $10 per patient and produces results in only 90 minutes, is already in use in Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Greece, the Philippines, Thailand, Australia, Paraguay, Ecuador, Israel, South Africa and Canada. But in the U.S. it had only been available for certain entities and research institutions, per guidance from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).” It was not until March 17 that the FDA gave Co-Diagnostics emergency approval to distribute the test more generally to U.S. hospitals.

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Again looking back, Vermonters will be proud of the quick action by the state’s governor and Legislature to aid the economic victims of the outbreak, and back off encrusted state regulations to let useful things happen. For example, we made it quick and easy to mobilize retired and out-of-state nurses and doctors to treat Vermont patients without lengthy relicensing hassles. The state relaxed scope of practice regulations to let physician assistants and nurse practitioners perform more duties, freeing doctors to deal with the more serious problems. A regulation change allowed doctors to be reimbursed for practicing telemedicine, essential when so many Vermonters are sheltered in place.

The benefit of these prompt actions should impel legislatures to reconsider all state regulations, and back off from those that burden the citizenry without accomplishing any useful public purpose.

Vermonters will also look back with pride not only on the faithfulness and heroism of our first responders, but also on the flowering of volunteer efforts to assist health care providers and patients, bring food and medications to shut-ins, and support child care and home schooling for working parents. This is the often-overlooked and wonderful benefit of a strong civil society, in which people work together to solve problems without waiting to be marshalled into government-run service brigades directed from above.

This is a time of tribulation, but our responses to it will serve us well in the years ahead.   

"In war, the first casualty is truth," and now in a pandemic, as well. Thus it's all the more vital today to support VTDigger's collection of accurate timely news.

Bill Mares, VJT Board Member


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