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Where Is the Worthington Data and Why Does it Matter?

By May 16, 2020Commentary

For non-Minnesota readers, Worthington is a town in southwestern Minnesota, an agricultural area and there is a large meatpacking plant there with a substantial employee base, many central American immigrants.  Like many meatpacking plants there has been an outbreak there.  Our Governor used that outbreak as an example of how dangerous the virus was, how quickly it could spread and therefore, people needed to be locked down.  The size of an outbreak is meaningless, what is important is what are the health outcomes of the outbreak and we have been given no information on that.  The Governor has gone radio silent.  People email me with lots of useful information.  You have to be cautious until there is some official data able to be checked for veracity, but such information can be helpful.  I became aware of an email from an employee of a large hog-raising operation in the area which described infections and hospitalizations.  I have also received other information from people familiar with the situation confirming the prior data.  There was very large scale testing in the plant and I assume the community.  The county where Worthington is located has reported around 1342 positive cases.  Among the meatpacking employees, there were apparently 12 hospitalizations and no deaths.  There have been two deaths in the county, both elderly and not associated with the plant.

The population of the country is estimated at around 21,600 people.  Contact testing is probably ongoing.  That is a pretty high percent of the population infected.  So we have a kind of natural experiment to see in a general population, what does the epidemic look like.  Apparently the vast, vast majority of infections in the county have been asymptomatic or mild.  Most of those who tested positive probably didn’t even realize they had the disease.  Very little serious illness.  The state should not only be doing infection testing but should encourage the entire population of the county to have an antibody test.  If I can order one at Quest Labs, I assume the state can figure out to test that group.  Then people should be looked at pretty intensively to see why do some people not get infected, especially if they are living in the same household as an infected person.  Why are most people asymptomatic? What characteristics were associated with serious illness?  These are really important questions that have tremendous bearing on what public policy should be in regard to the epidemic.   If you know that you can basically let the virus proceed through a population with very low levels of serious illness, and obviously far less damage to economic and social life, and that there may be a few vulnerable groups that need special protection, how important is that finding?

Now back to why we aren’t getting more data.  That answer is obvious too.  It isn’t consistent with the Governor’s fear-mongering approach and it undermines the rationale for the horrific shutdown he created, one that keeps putting more and more Minnesotans out of work.   Public confidence is critical to economic recovery.  The Governor should be using Worthington to reassure the population.  He should be telling us that coronavirus disease poses no serious risk to almost everyone in the state, so that we can return to normal activities.  That strategy would actually protect the elderly and other vulnerable groups, because the faster enough people have become infected to create population immunity, the better for everyone.

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